Six years ago, when Katie Swingle’s son was only 18 months old, a doctor reported that her boy’s autism would probably prevent him from ever being able to speak. Today, Katie’s son is not only communicating orally, but he’s also writing – in cursive! And Katie says the Florida Legislature is partly to thank.
That’s because Florida legislators adopted an innovative new policy last year called Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSAs). These flexible accounts enable parents of children with unique abilities to “customize” their child’s education by choosing from a wide array of instructional materials, classroom programs, tutorial services, learning therapies and the like.
Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts have proved so popular with parents of special needs children that the Senate has already passed an expansion – and the House is expected to follow suit before the 2015 session ends.
One of the reasons PLSAs have generated so much enthusiasm is because they fill several gaps not covered by Florida’s well-established (and well-regarded) McKay Scholarships for special needs students. For starters, PLSAs are available to students who haven’t completed a year at public school. This proved very important to Katie and her husband since their son’s public school experience was extremely short-lived.
“We started with Kindergarten, and within a week I knew we were in trouble,” Katie told a Florida legislative panel recently. “It wasn’t the school’s fault – they did everything they could to help me.” But since her child’s unique needs were “impossible” for the local public school to address, Katie withdrew him (and in so doing lost the opportunity to qualify for a McKay Scholarship after a year).
Thanks to the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program, the Swingles weren’t left out in the cold. Instead, they were able to deposit into a PLSA the per-pupil tax dollars that would have otherwise been spent for their son to attend public school. With the PLSA, the Swingles were able to pay for a variety of educational programs that collectively meet their son’s learning needs.
Like the Swingles, more than 1,700 Florida families have benefited from the freedom and flexibility PLSAs offer. And many more would like to do so. In the year since the law passed, more than 5,000 Florida families have applied to the program – and interest in the program shows no signs of slowing down.
Another reason PLSAs have become so popular is because, unlike McKay Scholarships, Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts can be used to buy “unbundled” educational services from multiple providers – including instructional materials, curriculum, speech therapy, hearing aids, tuition, tutoring and assessment fees.
As one might imagine, having the flexibility to obtain “unbundled” services is particularly important to students with unique abilities since many schools aren’t equipped to meet certain needs. (Many “regular” students, particularly at the high school level, would also benefit from the kind of “unbundled” flexibility PLSAs provide. These students ought to get more attention from Florida lawmakers in years to come.)
For now, state lawmakers need to give priority to expanding Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts to help more students with special needs. Specifically, lawmakers need to expand PLSA eligibility to cover a broader range of student disabilities, including muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, dyslexia, ADHD, multiple sclerosis and blindness.
In addition, lawmakers need to increase the dollars allocated to the program from $18.4 million to at least the $50 million that the Florida Senate adopted. That would enable more special needs students to benefit from the program.
Expanding PLSAs would be a great way for Florida legislators to assist dedicated moms like Katie Swingle. Even more, expanding PLSAs would be a great way to help children with unique abilities reach their full potential.
William Mattox is the director of the Marshall Center for Educational Options at the James Madison Institute.Column courtesy of Context Florida.