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Making the case for Florida school vouchers: One child’s story

The Rowlands family, and others like them, fear the state’s voucher expansion will lessen the focus on students with special needs.
 
Evan Rowlands, left, high-fives his mother, Jessica Rowlands, after answering a question while completing schoolwork at Riverview Public Library on Nov. 8.
Evan Rowlands, left, high-fives his mother, Jessica Rowlands, after answering a question while completing schoolwork at Riverview Public Library on Nov. 8. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 24, 2023|Updated Nov. 25, 2023

Evan Rowlands hasn’t attended a regular school classroom since he was 6 years old.

On doctors’ orders, the 10-year-old from southern Hillsborough County studies an online curriculum at home, supplemented by tutoring, enrichment courses and any other opportunities his family can afford.

His daily regimen — up by 8 a.m., working on lessons by 9 a.m., turning to extras around noon — leaves plenty of time for appointments related to his respiratory, neuromuscular and immunocompromised conditions.

Flexibility to deal with Evan’s reality led his family to home schooling. And Florida’s education scholarship and voucher system for students with special needs helps make it possible.

“It really has been such a huge bonus,” Jessica Rowlands said recently over coffee at Starbucks before taking her son to a home-school group hockey lesson in Wesley Chapel. The money, she said, helps pay for curriculum, equipment and field trips.

Evan Rowlands uses a laptop for schoolwork at Riverview Public Library on Nov. 8.
Evan Rowlands uses a laptop for schoolwork at Riverview Public Library on Nov. 8. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Yet Rowlands and many other parents whose children benefit from the program worry that their situations are often overlooked in Florida’s political battle over voucher expansion. They don’t see vouchers as a choice as much as a necessity to succeed in an education system that isn’t built to suit their sometimes life-and-death needs.

They’ve watched with trepidation as lawmakers have merged vouchers into a single pot, providing support to children whose parents want — rather than require — something different. Would their situations get less attention as the program focuses on providing options more broadly to all?

They’ve also worried about mounting criticism over the use of taxpayer money on items such as paddleboards and widescreen televisions — things that didn’t cause a stir when limited to kids with academic, social and physical disabilities.

With such expenses now permissible for anyone with a voucher, these parents feared the questions might lead lawmakers to cut back.

Desperate for options

The money issue aside, an underlying problem is that many public schools aren’t equipped to support students with disabilities, Orlando parent Jennifer Copp said in an email.

“There often aren’t private schools that can meet the needs, and parents can’t always homeschool,” she said. “The REAL story is that there are many many parents who have tried public school and had a disastrous and damaging outcome.”

Many are desperate to find solutions, said Jenny Wojick, a special education advocate who helps parents across Florida navigate the system. They have fragile children who require more attention than public schools provide, she said, and they struggle to find adequate private schools, too.

They often wind up leaving their jobs to provide the in-person care their children need, and turn to vouchers as a resource, even when faced with difficulties in getting services and equipment reimbursed, Wojick said.

That’s where the Rowlands family found themselves with Evan.

While in the classroom, Evan proved a gifted learner, his mom says. He taught himself to multiply, she recalled, and devoured books.

Yet other things got in the way.

He carried an EpiPen, inhalers, Benadryl and other medicines to respond to his many allergies, but they were locked in a room that few had access to in case of an emergency. He was “constantly sick,” Jessica Rowlands said, and frequently missed classes because of appointments and occasional lengthy hospitalizations.

As a result, Evan was regularly behind in schoolwork and having to catch up.

It wasn’t fair to him, his mom said, or to his teachers, who couldn’t reasonably be expected to cater to Evan while also handling all his classmates. When his doctors recommended a smaller environment, she said, it just had to be done.

“Ideally, I would love to send him to our neighborhood school. I could go back to work,” Jessica Rowlands said. “But that’s not the way our life works, and that’s not what works for Evan.”

“This is not free money”

Home schooling helped overcome Evan’s hurdles. He said he’s rarely sick anymore, though he still has close to a dozen monthly lab, therapy and other medical appointments, around which he must pace his online schoolwork.

That pacing provides time for enrichment such as aquarium field trips, piano lessons and extra science courses through the University of Florida extension without feeling crushed by things out of his control. Evan, who wants to be an astrophysicist, receives tutoring and other assistance from certified teachers, his mom said. He also faces a family requirement that academics come before his passions for video games and ice hockey.

Evan Rowlands looks at his computer while his mother, Jessica Rowlands, speaks with him as he completes schoolwork at Riverview Public Library on Nov. 8.
Evan Rowlands looks at his computer while his mother, Jessica Rowlands, speaks with him as he completes schoolwork at Riverview Public Library on Nov. 8. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“It gives me more flexibility in scheduling,” Evan said, noting most of his friends are home-schooled, too.

The upshot, his mom added, is “he’s not missing out.” And the voucher helps make his education more affordable. That’s despite the struggles she and others have faced lately getting reimbursements from Step Up For Students, the organization that manages school vouchers for the state.

During a special legislative session this month to expand voucher access for students with disabilities, lawmakers said they would look for ways to improve the reimbursement system.

Rowlands, like many other parents whose children receive the special needs vouchers, said she hoped officials will place renewed emphasis on the families who see vouchers as a lifeline rather than an added benefit. She said she doesn’t begrudge anyone who gets a regular voucher, and she encourages people she knows to apply.

Still, Rowlands added, with state money for education stretched thin across public and private options, Florida should consider setting some guardrails, such as demanding more accountability for how the money gets spent, and placing priorities on those with the greatest need.

“Don’t ruin it for the rest of us who aren’t doing crazy things. We’re not doing it because we want to and because it’s the new fad,” she said. “This is not free money. This is not to pick an extremely expensive travel sport. This is to educate your child.”

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