Romano: On this education bill, you decide who is evil

Chase Benson, 6, was born with Down syndrome and autism. He attends a private school in Palm Harbor through a Gardiner Scholarship.
Chase Benson, 6, was born with Down syndrome and autism. He attends a private school in Palm Harbor through a Gardiner Scholarship.
Published May 25, 2017

The political ramifications are not lost on Kristine Benson.

She understands the Legislature is basically playing a high-stakes game of ransom with funds for education. She's admittedly conflicted. She called the controversial bill HB 7069 a "slimy'' strategy.

And yet, she is pulling for it to succeed.

She has no other choice.

As far as she is concerned, the future of her 6-year-old son Chase depends on it.

"This money will benefit thousands of kids like Chase,'' she said. "If he's forced to go back to public schools, I'm afraid he's just going to fall through the cracks.''

Chase has both Down syndrome and autism. As frightening as that sounds, his mother says he has a chance for a happy and productive life with the proper education.

He is reading two grades above his age level but is not yet potty-trained. He can count to 10 in four different languages, but needs constant supervision because he tends to run away. His motor skills are severely lacking, but he brings a joyous, mischievous sense of wonder to everything he does.

After two years in a public school VPK program, Chase qualified for a Gardiner Scholarship last fall. The Gardiner program provides funds — through tax credit scholarships — that allow children with special needs to attend private schools.

Benson says the individualized attention Chase has received at Academy at the Beach in Palm Harbor is already paying dividends in kindergarten. The school emphasizes behavior training, which gives Chase the life skills he needs to participate in more traditional classroom settings.

"This school is amazing,'' she said. "He's learning things that will help him function on his own and be independent. I believe it is changing his life.''

And that's why HB 7069 has her frightened.

The bill, crafted behind closed doors in the final days of the legislative session and packed with 35 disparate proposals over 278 pages, is drawing howls of protest across the state. Public school administrators, parents, gubernatorial candidates and newspapers are calling for Gov. Rick Scott to veto the bill because of the diversion of school funds, lack of transparency and political chicanery involved.

But a veto will not come without a price.

HB 7069 includes an additional $30 million in funding for Gardiner Scholarships. The program will continue with or without the $30 million, but those funds are needed to handle the increasing number of families applying for scholarships.

Even current students might not be renewed because some scholarship costs will increase from last year, and there may not be enough funds simply to maintain the status quo.

For Benson, losing the scholarship is unthinkable because she couldn't otherwise afford a private school for Chase. Not when she's already paying $150 a week for speech lessons, along with all the other medical costs his condition necessitates.

"It's first-come, first-served for returning students, so we applied as soon as possible,'' she said. "But I don't know how many scholarships are being funded, and I don't know where we are in line.''

It never should have come to this. The Senate had additional funding for Gardiner Scholarships in its original budget, but the House did not. Instead, the House used that money as a quid pro quo to get additional charter school funding in HB 7069.

House leadership knew its charter school plan was not going to succeed on its own, and so it used funding for special needs kids as a political hostage. And then it crammed HB 7069 with a bunch of other proposals to make it more difficult for Scott to veto.

"I understand HB 7069 is overstuffed. I know they used it to hide the stuff they were going to get flak over, and they're using our kids to slide this stuff in,'' Benson said.

"But it is so critical for us. It has so much potential to change so many lives, and allow our children to become better functioning adults who can contribute back to the community. Ten, 15, 20 years ago, this opportunity didn't exist for these kids. It's there now, and we need to take advantage.''

Seven months ago, House Speaker Richard Corcoran called the state's teachers union "evil'' for challenging the legality of tax credit scholarships. Denying children in need was "disgusting'' and "repugnant,'' he said.

And yet the House did not include additional funds in the budget for this very same scholarship program. Instead, leadership chose to use these special needs children as a human shield to protect the House's radical agenda with HB 7069.

So, you tell me:

Who is evil now?