Each day across our community, parents are working hard to build a better tomorrow for their families. Florida parents are resilient, determined and hopeful for the future of their children.
Essential to the success of each child in Florida is a dynamic education system that can meet the unique needs of all children to foster their God-given talent and potential. Education and political leaders across Florida have been working diligently to augment our publicly funded education system with solutions that are flexible enough to meet the needs of all students, including those with unique abilities.
One of those solutions is House Bill 1, landmark legislation filed by Choice and Innovation Subcommittee Chair Kaylee Tuck that would increase access to innovative educational resources. Currently, families and caregivers of lower-income students and children in foster care can receive vouchers to attend private schools if their assigned public school is not meeting their educational needs.
HB 1 would expand that opportunity to all Florida parents, as well as cover some educational expenses like home schooling, tutoring and specialized testing. Families would receive the money through state-funded Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).
For parents of children with unique abilities, including autism, this bill would be a game changer.
Amber Zollinger is one of those parents.
She recalls her oldest child “sobbing through testing,” only to find out she didn’t qualify for extra academic services at school because she wasn’t “bad enough.”
Now, years later, she is finally getting the academic support she needs through Step Up for Students, a state-run scholarship program intended to close educational gaps of marginalized students.
Zollinger was able to enroll her child in a smaller, specialized academic program.
“Schools as a whole have a lot of work to do for our kiddos with special needs, but being able to have the choice back then has made all the difference,” Zollinger said. “I am so appreciative that our local and state leaders are trying to make a difference.”
Florida House Speaker Paul Renner is among those endorsing the bill, saying that it would “empower parents and children to decide the education that meets their needs.” Lower-income families would still have priority, but parents of children on the autism spectrum could explore educational options available at other schools, including private schools.
For the past eight years, Cape Coral-based Family Initiative has served as a resource and vocal advocate for children and families with autism, including more than 1,800 families in 2022 alone. Family Initiative was among the groups that participated in the development of HB 1 and our leadership, along with several families, helped launch the bill in Tallahassee.
We are very grateful to Reps. Jenna Persons-Mulicka and Spencer Roach for taking a lead and supporting the bill in its first subcommittee stop.
A singular approach to teaching and learning is not effective for all students. Children with autism don’t learn in the same manner as their peers, and parents should be able to identify an environment that offers better opportunities to thrive academically. If that is a public school, great. If that is a private school, great. If that is home-school, great.
HB 1 would provide funding that allows parents to customize their child’s education and provide access to innovative education resources. Supporting school choice empowers parents, creates competition that drives schools to enhance academic programs, serves as a catalyst for innovation and raises the level of excellence in schools across Florida.
That is exactly what every parent, taxpayer, employer and community member should want in an education system.
David Brown is the co-founder and president of Cape Coral-based Family Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting children and families with autism. Please visit FI-Florida.org for more information.