Understanding School Choice Options

by Dr. Ilene Wilkins, CEO of UCP of Central Florida

The choices for students with disabilities have grown exponentially over the past decade. Charter Schools, McKay Scholarships and the new Gardiner Scholarship (formerly the Personal Learning Scholarship) have allowed parents to select an option that best meets the unique needs of their child. Each option is different and there are pros/cons to consider for each one. Here is some basic information on each option as well as considerations:

Charter Schools are non-profit agencies operating an innovative public school. There are over 650 charter schools located throughout Florida educating over 270,000 students. There are different kinds of charter schools including schools specifically focused on a type of disability (i.e. Autism) as well as unique approach (i.e. focus on Arts). Tuition is 100% free and all services on your child’s IEP are required to be provided. Charter Schools are monitored through their school district and have accountability similar to other public school (i.e. students take state testing, the school has performance goals, teachers are required to be certified, etc.). In 2017-2018 school year, new legislations allow your child to attend any charter school regardless of where you live (as space allows). Each School District website will list the charter schools in that district. For more information: www.bitly.com/charterhelp

Another option for students with disabilities is private schools funded by one of the scholarship/voucher programs. To use one of these scholarships – the child must withdraw from public school (and the district school board is then not obligated to provide the student with a free appropriate public education). There are many private schools through Central Florida focusing on different kinds of disabilities using various approaches/service models which allows parents a plethora of choices. Private schools are independent schools as such are not mandated by law to follow/provide the services from the Individual Education Plan (IEP). For more information:

The McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program was originally created in 1999, and provides scholarships for eligible students with disabilities to attend an eligible public or private school of their choice. The amount of the scholarship is equal to the amount the student would have received in the public school to which the student is assigned or the amount of the private school’s tuition and fees, whichever is less. The scholarship may not cover the full costs of private school. Parents are responsible for any tuition or fees above the scholarship amount.
Florida Gardiner Scholarship Program (formerly known as Personal Learning Scholarship Account or PLSA) is an annual scholarship that provides parents/guardians of children with specific disabilities the opportunity to meet the individual needs of their eligible children. The Gardiner Scholarship Program provides eligible students a scholarship that can be used to purchase approved services or products to design a customized educational program for the student. Scholarships can be used for specialized services such as speech or occupational therapy, instructional materials, tuition at an eligible private school, contributions to a college prepaid account and more. The program is directly administered by state-approved nonprofit scholarship funding organizations.

Dr. Ilene Wilkins is the CEO of UCP of Central Florida – an agency that provides a variety of school choice options including Charter Schools, and McKay and Gardiner Scholarship programs. Dr. Wilkins has served as a national and statewide leader in the field of disabilities and is currently the Chairman of the Florida Interagency Coordinating Council for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities for Early Steps.