State loses $18 million for disabled students after failing to implement federal law

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Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration last year was unable to spend $18 million in federal funding to help mentally and physically disabled students after it failed to fully implement a federally-mandated system on time.

“Unfortunately for the students, the planning took too long and wasn’t collaborative in nature,” said Heather Beaven, the CEO for the Florida Endowment Foundation for Florida’s Graduates.

Beaven has been working to get some of those dollars for her organization, which helps disabled students transition into the workforce or college — the goal of the state-federal program.

But when determining who is to blame for the state allowing millions of dollars to fall through the cracks last fiscal year, it depends on who you talk to.

Vendors say the blame is on an “ill-thought-out process” and a “sloppy rollout” of the program; state education officials say the problem was a lack of qualified vendors and professionals.

“The first fiscal year that we got the money, for as many eligible candidates that we had, there weren’t enough vendors and professionals to spend money on,” said Meghan Collins, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education.

Collins said she is “confident” the department will be able to use the federal money this fiscal year because it has done more outreach and there are now more vendors who have the credentials and training to partner with.

Susanne Homant, the president and CEO for The Able Trust, a public-private foundation established by the Florida Legislature, said her organization helped about 1,600 disabled students enter the workforce last academic year, without going through the program. She cited compatibility issues.

“We are trying to match what we are doing to the [federal] program to create the flow of those dollars,” Homant said.

Beaven echoed that one of the biggest problems in getting funds is that the state’s requirements do not always mirror what goes on in the student’s life.

“We will be here when the Department of Education finally realizes that what they created in a boardroom doesn’t square with the realities of the classroom,” said Beaven.

The program is designed to provide students ages 14-21 who are mentally or physically disabled with services that can help them transition into the workforce or to college. Mental disabilities that would meet the criteria include depression, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Once admitted into the program, youths participate in work-based learning experiences, like internships, self-advocacy training and career exploration counseling to sharpen their skills as they seek employment.

“The intent of the law is phenomenal, but states being able to get things in place 100 percent takes a little bit of time,” said Allison Flanagan, the division director for the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which runs the program.

Since 2015, when Congress passed the federal law known as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, 63 out of the 74 school districts in the state have a system in place to refer qualifying students to the program.

“We have made strides and am proud of what we are doing, but there is always room for improvement,” Flanagan added.

Ana Ceballos

Ana covers politics and policy Before joining the News Service of Florida she wrote for the Naples Daily News and was the legislative relief reporter for The Associated Press and covered policy issues impacting immigration, the environment, criminal justice and social welfare in Florida. She holds a B.A. in journalism from San Diego State University. After graduating in 2014, she worked as a criminal justice reporter for the Monterey Herald and the Monterey County Weekly. She has also freelanced for The Washington Post at the U.S.-Mexico border covering crime in the border city of Tijuana, where she grew up. Ana is fluent in Spanish and has intermediate proficiency in Portuguese.



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