Sue Kingery Woltanski: Gardiner Parents Frustrated, Demanding Oversight
In Florida, the legislature recently voted for a massive expansion of its voucher program. Among other things, it folded in a previous voucher program set up to serve families of students with special needs. The non-profit that manages the voucher program suddenly found itself handling far more clients than previously, with no real oversight. It’s not going well.
When a politically connected non-profit manages a $1 billion public program with little to no oversight, what could go wrong?
Last session, when Gardiner families travelled to Tallahassee to testify against HB7045, which massively expanded and reorganized Florida’s existing voucher programs, formally eliminating the Gardiner program for students with disabilities and combining it with the needs based Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES), their concerns were dismissed as being uninformed. Rep. Chris Latvala (R-67) believed the speakers had not been “told the whole truth about this bill.” He said “There are 2 truths to this bill. The first truth is more families will be served. The second truth is more kids with unique abilities will be served.” He insisted more money would go to children on McKay and Gardiner and that “the bill expands choice for children with disabilities. That is a fact and that is a truth regardless of what folks standing at that podium say.” You can watch the exchange at 1:08:00).
Despite testimony from Camille Gardiner (the Gardiner scholarship was named for her husband, former Senate President, Andy Gardiner) warning “there are so many unintended consequences in this bill. This will be the beginning of chipping away at something this legislature set up to support our fellow citizens that have children with the most significant disabilities,” HB7045 went on to pass the House and Senate, without addressing the Gardiner family concerns, and was signed into law by Governor Desantis (twice!).
If HB7045 was so great for families of children with disabilities, then why are they so upset right now?
Posted by a Gardiner parent on Facebook yesterday:
“Last spring, legislators in their “infinite wisdom”, decided to ignore parent and provider concerns, and re-write the legislation, expanding the scholarship through the state. We told them that SUFS systems couldn’t handle it, but the CEO went on television and said they could, so we parents that struggle every day with using the system were pushed to the sidelines, and treated like over-reacting hysterical crazies. Fast forward to now. Funding for this year’s scholarship was increased to accommodate 20k students with unique abilities. 25% of eligible students were NOT funded, and are being told they will need to wait until November for the error to be fixed. Oh, and by statute, renewals get funded first, yet they are the ones NOT funded and NEW students have been funded.”