WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Florida's expanded school voucher program is one of several issues on the agenda during lawmakers' special session this week.
On Monday, Senate and House committees each discussed a bill to further expand the voucher program to more students with special needs.
They are specifically looking at the Florida Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities. Students who are eligible for that scholarship have a variety of special needs or developmental delays including autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy and more. They receive an average of $10,000 for their educational needs.
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The Senate Committee on Fiscal Policy moved its version of the bill forward, as did the House Appropriations Committee.
Mary Jo Walsh, the owner of Mountaineer's School of Autism in West Palm Beac, told lawmakers about her concerns. "There's a pressing issue that needs to have light revealed. I ask you to please understand that our current scholarship program is in severe crisis," she said.
WPTV spoke to Walsh in September when her school was in danger of shutting down because of delayed payments from the state-backed Florida Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities.
Walsh eventually received the last of the funding she was owed on Oct. 4, but says her therapy center is still owed more than $20,000.
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Sen. Jay Collins, a Republican from Tampa, sponsored the Senate version of the bill. "We hear you, we understand, and this bill is a step toward making sure nobody gets left behind," he said.
The bill would remove the current scholarship cap for students with unique abilities and change it to a "number determined by the Department of Education and scholarship funding organizations."
He said the current funding would cover this expansion. Right now there are more than 8,000 students on a waiting list for that specific scholarship, he said.
Although Walsh supports the idea and expansion, she wants lawmakers to put in place greater accountability, oversight and transparency with how the money gets distributed.
"I close with my request for revisions to strengthen the bill with amendments, which will sustain current programs and placement of our children. We simply cannot wait until September 2024," she told lawmakers.
In light of the funding disbursement issues, Walsh recently launched the Florida Coalition of Private Schools, which has 87 members.
WPTV reached out to Step Up for Students, the organization that manages the scholarship money, for an update on the issues Walsh and countless other private school leaders have been dealing with. A spokesperson said 99% of student scholarship accounts have been funded, along with more than 96% of tuition invoices from schools.
"Step Up by no means minimizes the impact on these families still awaiting funding," the spokesperson said. "Florida is implementing the largest education choice program in the nation. The process will improve with every quarter as initial onboarding issues are resolved. We are working daily to improve the experience for families and schools."
Step Up also says it supports the legislative efforts to reduce or eliminate the current waitlist.