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  1. Florida Politics

New voucher program helps Florida special needs students

TALLAHASSEE — The news literally made Mary Kurnik jump with joy.

Her 12-year-old son, John, would receive $10,000 from the state as part of a new program for children with special needs. The money could help defray the costs of math tutoring and Applied Behavior Analysis therapy, a costly technique used to help kids with autism.

"This will make a real difference for us," said Kurnik, who homeschools her children in Tampa.

Just five months after winning approval from state lawmakers, the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program is becoming a reality for families across Florida. Last week, the state Board of Education approved new rules governing the scholarship initiative. More than 1,000 schoolchildren have been named recipients.

But the reception has not been universally warm. Already, the program has been challenged in court by the statewide teachers union. And it continues to endure criticism from some parent groups, who say it funnels public dollars into private hands.

"With a voucher program like this, we have no guarantee that our most special children will be receiving the services that they deserve," Florida PTA legislative chair Mindy Gould said.

Lawmakers established the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program this year to help children with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and five other categories of profound special needs. It is part of a larger movement to provide parents and students with more choices in education.

The scholarships are worth at least $10,000 each, and can be used for private-school tuition, tutoring and various types of therapy. Homeschoolers can spend the money on books and curricula. It also can be put into a prepaid college tuition account. Children who are enrolled in district schools are not eligible.

The state has budgeted $18.4 million for the program this year, meaning about 1,800 scholarships will be awarded. So far, more than 3,700 parents have started applications, said Doug Tuthill, whose nonprofit Step Up for Students manages the program.

"Despite all the unknowns of a new program and having a short timeline, everyone has come together," he said.

The parents of children who receive the scholarships won't get the cash up front. Instead, they will be reimbursed for any expenditures that fit the criteria. The program will begin cutting checks next month, Tuthill said.

Families are already starting to spend their share.

Adriana Mantilla, who helps her husband run a small Italian restaurant in Miami-Dade County, had long wanted to homeschool her autistic son. She wasn't sure the family could afford it — until 10-year-old Armando received a Personal Learning Scholarship Account.

Mantilla has since spent about $4,000 on virtual classes and a computer her son can put together and code himself. She would also like to find a tutor to help Armando with algebra, but is waiting until the money starts flowing.

"If I knew that I had the money for sure and I knew exactly what I could be using it for, I could be doing more," she said.

The Personal Learning Scholarship Account program has come a long way since it was first proposed in the Legislature.

The bill was a top priority for the Foundation for Florida's Future, the influential think tank founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush. But the statewide PTA and teachers union opposed the concept, saying children with special needs would be better served in public schools, which have accountability measures.

The controversial proposal never received a vote on the Senate floor. On the second-to-last day of the legislative session, the language was tucked into a sweeping education bill that also expanded a separate school voucher program. That bill passed with little public input.

In July, the Florida Education Association filed a legal challenge to the way the bill became law. As the fight intensified, both sides accused the other of using special-needs children as props.

A circuit court judge dismissed the case in September, saying the teacher who was named as the plaintiff did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit. Tuthill, the program administrator, said he is hopeful the controversy will die down.

"People got caught up in the policy drama and forgot there are real human beings involved," he said.

Those "real human beings" include John Kurnik, the 12-year-old Tampa boy.

John loves drawing cartoons and has encyclopedic knowledge of movies. He socializes with his friends regularly, but sometimes struggles to understand nuance and facial cues.

Now, more therapy is an option, mother Mary said.

"The copays have been very expensive," she said. "This will take some of the stress and strain off the family budget."

Mary Kurnik is mulling over other ways to spend the money. She could use some of it for textbooks and classroom supplies, or put it away in his prepaid college tuition account.

"The rules were just approved so we're still kind of new to this," she said. "But we're very excited and we're very hopeful."

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@miamiherald.com.

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