New report shows majority of Gardiner funding was spent on tuition in 2019-20

Families with children on Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs spent $117 million on private school tuition, books, curriculum, technology tutoring and more during the 2019-20 school year, according to a new report compiled by Step Up For Students.

While more than half (close to 57%) of scholarship monies was spent on school tuition, more than $50 million was spent on educational items not covered by other state scholarships, such as the McKay Scholarship, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship.

Unlike those scholarships, Gardiner operates as an education savings account that allows parents to use scholarship funds to pay for a host of different educational options, such as curriculum, textbooks, school supplies, tutoring and afterschool or summer school programs. Unspent money rolls over from one year to the next, and parents can use the funds save for their child’s college expenses through college savings plans.

There were 14,319 students awarded Gardiner Scholarships during the 2019-20 school year, with 13,463 enrolled through Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, compared to 11,393 students in the 2018-19 school year. The program funded $139 million in scholarships worth an average of $10,392.

Students ranged from 3 years old to 12th grade and comprised several different races, grade levels, prior school types and disabilities. Of those students, 62% had a diagnosis of autism; 10% intellectual disability; 8% rare disease; and 5% “high risk.” A little more than 3% of scholarship recipients had multiple diagnoses.

Other key findings in the report include:

·       More Gardiner Scholarship students were enrolled in kindergarten through fifth grade (44%) than in middle or high school.

·       There has been a slight increase in the percentage of Gardiner Scholarship students who are homeschooled students; 33 % were homeschooled in 2019-20 compared to 29.5% in 2014-15.

·       More Gardiner Scholarship students live in Miami-Dade County (13%) than in any other county, followed by Orange County (8%).

·       Around 84% of all scholarship funds awarded in 2019-20 were used by June 30, 2020.

·       Only about 2.5% of families did not spend any of their scholarship funds in 2019-20 compared to 23.8% of families in 2014-15.

Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this month signed a bill that will merge Florida’s two scholarship programs for students with special needs beginning with the 2022-23 school year.

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BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.