Five years in, Gardiner Scholarship Program still growing

Florida Politics | By Peter Schorsch | July 13, 2020

The state scholarship program for special needs students has experienced steady growth over the past several academic years, according to a new report from scholarship administrating organization Step Up For Students.

The brainchild of former Senate President Andy Gardiner, the Gardiner Scholarship Program was rolled out ahead of the 2014-15 academic year. The Florida Legislature created the program to give families of students with physical or cognitive disabilities the resources to design an educational curriculum tailored to their needs.

In its first year, the program provided about 1,500 scholarships — 1,429 administered by Step Up For Students and 80 administered by the AAA Scholarship Foundation.

Utilization more than tripled the following year and has been on a steady incline since. By the 2018-19 academic year, the most recent listed in the report, Step Up administered 11,393 Gardiner Scholarships with another 852 granted through the AAA Scholarship Foundation for a total of 12,245.

The figure represents a nearly 20% increase over the 2017-18 academic year when the two organizations served a combined 10,265 Gardiner Scholarship students.

Step Up For Students’ report shows a plurality of recipients (44%) are in elementary school and that about two-thirds of participants were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. About an eighth of recipients are listed as having an intellectual disability.

Of the remainder, 12% are prekindergarten students; 22% are in middle school, and 22% are in high school.

A small but noticeable trend over the program’s lifetime: the percentage of scholarship recipients who are home-schooled has climbed from just under 30% in year one to 34% today. The remaining two-thirds are enrolled in private schools.

About one in eight Gardiner Scholarship recipients live in Miami-Dade County while about one in 12 live in Orange County. Dade’s share is proportional to its share of the state’s overall population — with 2.76 million residents, nearly 13% of Floridians live in the county. Meanwhile, about 6% of Floridians live in Orange, making it slightly overrepresented.

On average, the Gardiner Scholarship provided $10,265 in the 2018-19 school year, which was virtually unchanged from the $10,276 average award in 2017-18.

Still, Step Up For Students said the funding is being spent in different ways now than in prior years.

About 58% of families used scholarship funds to pay for tuition and fees last school year. Likewise, the category worked out to about 58% of all scholarship funds spent. Still, that is a substantial step down from the 77% share in the inaugural year of the Gardiner Scholarship.

Much of the shift has come through a rise in spending on instructional materials — since the 2014-15 school year, it had doubled from 11% of total spending to 22% of total spending in 2018-19.

Gardiner Scholarship funds may also be spent on specialized services (9%), tutoring services (5%), curriculum (1%), or Florida 529 College Savings Plans (1%).

Finally, Step Up For Students reports a marked decline in recipients who don’t take advantage of the funds they’re granted. In 2014-15, nearly a quarter of families failed to tap into their accounts. By 2017-18 that contingent fell to 7% and was more than halved in 2018-19 when just 3% of recipients didn’t spend any of their allotment.

The percentage who used less than 10% of the award has also fallen by more than half in the program’s lifetime. In 2014-15, 13% of families were in that category. In 2018-19, just 6% spent less than 10% of the award.

Overall, 85% of scholarship funds awarded last school year had been spent by June 30, 2019. That equates to $98.8 million in spending, with $17.9 million left unspent.

The Step Up For Students report is available here.

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