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Guest Column
DeSantis should veto school choice bill to protect kids with Down Syndrome | Column
We must acknowledge there are some things we cannot simplify, just “because we can,” writes a proponent of the Gardiner Scholarship.
Seven years ago when he was Florida Senate president, Andy Gardiner wipes away tears as the Senate voted 39-0 for legislation that offered new post-secondary education options to students with special needs. The legislation was a top priority for Gardiner, who has a special-needs son. It was later named the Gardiner Scholarship.
Seven years ago when he was Florida Senate president, Andy Gardiner wipes away tears as the Senate voted 39-0 for legislation that offered new post-secondary education options to students with special needs. The legislation was a top priority for Gardiner, who has a special-needs son. It was later named the Gardiner Scholarship.
Published May 11
Updated May 11

Every day as responsible, mature adults we face countless decisions. Many times, during our daily work, we could decide to do something simply “because we can,” but instead, we use wisdom and self-control to look at how our decisions will impact people around us. Especially the most vulnerable.

During the 2021 legislative session, legislators passed House Bill 7045 – School Choice. It was sent to the governor on Monday. If he signs it, this bill will dramatically expand school choice at the expense of students with significant disabilities. HB 7045 repeals the Gardiner and McKay scholarships, two very different scholarships created for students with unique abilities, and rolls them into the Family Empowerment Scholarship, a scholarship for families with low income. Legislators have not done the due diligence necessary to study the impact this will have on families.

Camille Gardiner
Camille Gardiner [ Provided ]

HB 7045 is trying to simplify a very complex issue. Simplicity is not equality, nor does it work in special education. We must acknowledge there are some things we cannot simplify, just “because we can.” Exceptional Student Education, having a child with unique abilities and creating an individualized education program is not simple. Combining the scholarships will not change any of these things, it will ultimately make it more complicated. Families across Florida tried to make their concerns known to House and Senate members.

Unfortunately, their concerns were not given due consideration. Their only hope now is that Gov. Ron DeSantis will veto HB 7045 and ask legislators to pass a school choice bill that does not hurt our most vulnerable citizens.

The Gardiner Scholarship is the preeminent Educational Savings Account in the country and a model for other states. There is no need to change it. This is proven by a recent study done by researchers from Boston University and the University of Arkansas which shows that over 90 percent of Gardiner and McKay families are satisfied with their child’s choice of school and the services they receive.

Even legislators I’ve spoken with say it IS working. It works for families and the State. If these students were in public schools, it would cost the state significantly more to provide for their education. Families have valid concerns about the new funding mechanism, which will cause nine out of every 10 new Gardiner students to receive less funding. Parents are also concerned that expanding the eligibility criteria is effectively creating yet another waitlist for people with disabilities.

The Gardiner Scholarship was created to provide educational opportunities for students with a high level of needs. Gardiner families do not want this change. The short-term grandfather clause does not protect future students and is a financial red flag for future issues. As is, the scholarship provides amazing resources for families because they need different types of aid to help their child be successful. When we provide the same resources to students who do not need them, the program begins to seem frivolous. When that happens, there will be people who jump to say we need to make changes to what the scholarship provides. The opportunities currently provided by the Gardiner Scholarship are not sustainable if HB 7045 is signed into law.

On Feb. 4, 2019, during a speech at a private school, Gov. DeSantis made the following statement about the Gardiner scholarship: “As long as I am governor, don’t worry about the Gardiner scholarship. We’re going to be here and support it. We’ll stand behind the parents and students because we believe in you.”

We know Gov. DeSantis to be a man of principle, and while he is a strong supporter of school choice, he has also been a steadfast advocate to the disability community. We can increase school choice and protect our most vulnerable. We don’t have to sacrifice one for the other.

Our children deserve more, because we can…do better. Please join us in asking Gov. DeSantis to veto HB 7045.

Camille Gardiner is founder and board member of the Down Syndrome Foundation of Florida Inc., a non-profit organization started by a group of parents who wanted to directly impact children, families and the community as they journeyed through life with a loved one with Down syndrome. She is a mother of three and the spouse of former Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner.