Senate Votes to Expand Educational Opportunities for People with Disabilities

Jan 13, 2016

Plans to expand education options for people with disabilities passed the Senate Wednesday with a unanimous vote. The measures are a priority for Senate President Andy Gardiner, who was moved to tears at the bill’s passage.

Credit MGN Online

Senator Don Gaetz of Destin’s plans would provide more scholarships and pave the way to college for people with disabilities. Debate stalled out on the bill’s school uniforms provision, but soon turned to the heart of the matter. A key component of the bill is the expansion of the personal learning scholarship program that lets families customize their children’s education and therapy. Senator Gaetz says early intervention is key.

“The PLSA as codified will limit waiting lists, will ensure that scholarship awards  are prorated based on the date of eligibility, that 3 and 4 year olds can be eligible, because medical and educational research tells us that early intervention makes all the difference,” he said.

In a surprise move, Gaetz renamed this program the Gardiner Scholarship, in honor of Senate President Andy Gardiner’s family and their advocacy for people with disabilities. Ever the pragmatist, Gardiner refused the amendment, citing a promise he made to the House to pass the bill clean and un-amended. Then a message made its way to the Senate floor.

“The Speaker called and said he’ll take the amendment,” he said.

Gardiner was moved to tears by the announcement, and the reaction in the Senate Chambers.

“Since we’ve done this all so publicly, thank you to the Speaker, and thank you to President Gaetz. I would be honored to be associated with this, as we all should. We do a lot of things in Tallahassee that you find out in a mail piece later that maybe you regret, but I can tell you, each of us, Republican, Democrat, things like this is why you come up here,” he said.

Lawmaker after lawmaker rose to commend and congratulate the Senate President. Senator Alan Hays of Umatilla was not the only one to note the significance of the measure.

“The spectrum of influence of this bill is far greater than that of the population group which it’s intended to directly benefit. But it’s gonna benefit every single person in the state of Florida, and I am truly humbled to be a part of this what I consider an historic moment,” he said.

Senator Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood reflected on her years as a special education teacher.

“I was one of the first special ed teachers in the United States. And I never thought I would see this day today, that a legislature would come together for these kinds of kids that have special unique abilities,” she said.

The House will take up the bill Thursday.