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Local families with special needs children say public schools alone don't cut it

About 12,000 students in Florida receive Gardiner scholarships, allowing them to attend alternative schools.

SEMINOLE, Fla. — For thousands of kids with special needs around the state, public school just doesn’t cut it. 

Now, many who had been on a waiting list will have an alternative. The Gardiner Scholarship lets kids with special needs, many of them on the autism spectrum, get a more personalized private education, tutoring, and supplies. 

That sort of flexibility can be so important for parents who’ve been looking for alternatives. 

“We were told about the Gardiner scholarship and it has been amazing,” said Stephanie Laney, whose 12-year-old son, Ethan is a Gardiner Scholarship recipient.

For their family, it’s been a Godsend.

Public school wasn’t cutting for Ethan who has medical needs. He was also being bullied because of the auto-immune disease that restricts him to a wheelchair. 

“Now, kids are friendly to me,” said Ethan, who attends Lift Academy in Seminole. “And they like to hear my story. And understand what I go through.”

“And, being here he has had an amazing experience. His grades have gone from D’s to A’s. So, I mean that right there is a huge thing for me,” Laney said. 

The Gardiner Scholarship is named for former Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, whose son Andrew has Down Syndrome. Gardiner and his wife led the effort to establish the program here in Florida.

About 12,000 students in Florida receive Gardiner scholarships, allowing them to attend alternative schools, like Lift Academy in Seminole. 

It’s designed for children who might need more accommodation than they get in public school. 

“Accommodations means that you make adjustments to the way you teach, the way that you allow students to show you what they are learning,” said Lift Academy Principal Holly Andrade.

“It’s huge. It’s going to make a world of difference,” Ron Matus, who works with Stand up for Students, said. The company helps determine eligibility for the Gardiner scholarship, which are currently about $10,400 each year per student. 

“They can use that money for private school tuition, if they want. They can use it for tutoring. They can use it for a variety of different therapies,” said Madus. “They can use it for curriculum, for technology.”

With Monday’s announcement from Gov. Ron DeSantis, an estimated 1,900 children around the state who’d been on a waiting list would now be eligible for the Gardiner scholarship. 

The funding still needs to get through the state legislature, but supporters say the program has bipartisan support. 

“It may very well be the most popular education choice program in America,” said Madus.

The good news for families that receive the scholarship is that once they’re in the program, they stay in the program. No more waiting list. 

But given its popularity, more people apply for the Gardiner scholarship each year. And, whether there will be enough funding for all of them in future budget years, is still a question.

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