The Gardiner Scholarship Supports Children with Special Needs


Based on observations, people with disabilities are among the most marginalized and excluded groups in the world. People are disabled not only by their bodies, but also by the sick society. Discrimination arises not as a result of the nature of the disabilities, instead, it appears as a consequence of lack of understanding and knowledge, fear of contagion, or negative religious or cultural views of disabilities. They experience violations of their rights. Based on fact, children with unique abilities are less likely to attend school and adults with special needs are most likely to be unemployed than the people without it.

gardiner scholarship
Photo: @jenn_azraimages on unsplash

Understanding the obstacles and challenges faced by people with disabilities is important if their rights are to be realized. These barriers can be overcome, if the authorities, like governments; nongovernmental organizations; and professionals, and the involved parties, such as people with disabilities and their families, work together. Well, let’s change the way we view and think about people with disabilities: they are blessed to be born with unique abilities and special needs.

In some cases, the special-needs people’s intelligence level is so high and it is really a blessing, but society or families sometimes view it as an abnormal thing to be had by the people. There are cases when the kid is considered having mental disorders just because they are a genius. Well, many people having special needs go on to become extremely successful, and in some cases, famous. It has been proved by these figures, such as Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, and many more.

The underestimating and mocking look is not what they need. What they need is an appropriate treatment and assistance for them to grow and develop according to their nature in their own unique way.

What Is Gardiner Scholarship?

The Gardiner Scholarship is a unique scholarship that is dedicated to children with special needs in Florida. It allows parents to personally manage the education of their children. The program includes expenses for schools, therapists, electronic tools, even a college savings account, etc.

Establishing the scholarship in 2014, Florida became the 2nd state in the nation after Arizona in creating education saving accounts (ESA) program for children with special needs. The number of students received the scholarship reached more than 1,500 in the inaugural 2014-15 school year and it is increasing each year. Until now, the program has funded 11,917 students with a total of $124.1 million of the fund.

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Initially known as Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA), the scholarship was renamed after the Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner by the Florida legislature in 2016. It was done to honor him and his wife, Camille because they have championed the children with special needs for many years. The Gardiners themselves have two daughters and a son, Andrew, who has Down syndrome.

Just like other scholarships in Florida, the Gardiner Scholarship is administered by SFO. The currently trusted and authorized SFO are Step Up for Students and AAA (Academic Achievement Accessible) Foundation.

Who Is Eligible?

To be eligible to apply for the Gardiner Scholarship, the children must meet these criteria:

  • is a resident of Florida
  • is eligible to enroll in a K-12 school in Florida or is/will be 3 or 4 years old at maximum on September 1 of the year in which the children applied for the scholarship or up to age 22
  • has a written proof of the disability by having one of these following:
      • an IEP (Individualized Education Program) written in accordance with rules of the State Board of Education or with the applicable rules of another state
      • a diagnosis of disability from:
          • a licensed physician under chapter 458 or chapter 459
          • a licensed psychologist under chapter 490, or
          • a physician who holds an active license issued by another state or territory of the US, the District of Columbia, or the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
  • has a disability as defined below:
      • Autism spectrum disorder
      • Cerebral palsy
      • Down syndrome
      • An intellectual disability
      • Phelan-McDermid syndrome
      • Prader-Willi syndrome
      • Spina bifida
      • Being a high-risk child
      • Muscular dystrophy
      • Williams syndrome
      • Rare diseases which affect patient populations of fewer than 200,000 individuals in the US, as defined by the National Organization for Rare Disorders
      • Anaphylaxis
      • Deaf
      • Visually impaired
      • Traumatic brain-injured
      • Hospital or homebound
      • Identification as dual sensory impaired

What Is Covered?

The amount received by a winner of Gardiner Scholarship depends on a number of different factors, such as grade level, county of residence, and the kid’s individual level of need. The average amount is approximately $10,301, but it is higher for children whose disability is rated above level 3 (known as Matrix 253). The parent can request an evaluation from the school district to determine whether the student qualifies. Click here for a list of the scholarship amount by grade and county.

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Keep in mind that funding is prorated based on the date the student is found eligible by the SFO. If:

  • Eligible on or before September 1 = 100%
  • Eligible on or before November 1 = 75%
  • Eligible on or before February 1 = 50%
  • Eligible on or before April 1 = 25

The scholarship fund may be used for these purposes:

  • Tuition and fees to enroll in:
      • a private school
      • a home education program and annual evaluation
      • programs offered by Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) Education Program
      • a nationally or internationally recognized research-based training program for a child with a neurological disorder or brain damage.
  • Therapies.
  • Specialized summer and after-school education programs.
  • Part-time & full-time tutoring.
  • Instructional Materials, including the assistive technology devices needed that allow the student to access the materials.
  • The public school contracted services.
    A student who receives services under a contract from a public school is not considered enrolled in a public school for eligibility purposes.
  • Postsecondary & transition programs.
  • Contributions to the Stanley G. Tate Prepaid College and 529 Florida College savings plans.
  • Eligible online courses.

For more detailed information on the approved expenses, please visit this page.

How Can I Apply?

Applications for the scholarship have to be submitted before June 30 (can change anytime) through the SFO that is administering the program, currently are Step Up for Students and AAA Foundation. You can apply online by click on the link below:

or fill the paper application and mail or e-mail to the AAA Foundation (the address is included at the end of this article).

Noted that the scholarship will be determined on a first-come-first-serve basis. The fund will be distributed with priority granted to renewing students. For a list of private schools that participate in the Gardiner Scholarship, please click here.

Valid Period of the Gardiner Scholarship

The recipients of Gardiner Scholarship can continue to receive the funding until they graduate from high school, turn 22, or return to public school (whichever occurs first). The scholarship will continue each year as long as the applicants commit to the annual renewal application submission, agree to comply with the rules by signing the Sworn Compliance Statement, and final verification of document submission.

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However, the scholarship can be frozen (no new scholarship funds will be deposited into the account) if:

  • there is no spending from the account for two consecutive years.
    The account will be considered inactive until spending occurs within another year, otherwise, the account will be closed.
  • the eligible SFO ( Step Up for Students in this context) doesn’t receive a renewal application by June 30 each year.
    Additional reimbursements can not be made until the renewal application and required documentation have been submitted and processed.

or terminated (then any remaining money will be reverted to the state) if:

  • there is no spending from the account for three consecutive years.
  • the student has not been enrolled in an eligible postsecondary educational institution or a program offered by the institution within three consecutive years after completing high school.

Additional Information

  • Students can not receive the Gardiner Scholarship and stay in public school at the same time. However, the students are very welcomed to apply for the Gardiner Scholarship regardless of which schools they are currently attending. If “Awarded”, then the student should be homeschooled or attend approved private school.
  • Step Up for Students has provided the parents with MyScholarShop, a one-stop online shopping experience for the scholarship families. It was made to help parents buying everything needed for the children’s education at a cheaper price than other places (no profit is taken) in a short time. Since created in 2018, approximately 50,000 purchases worth $11.5 million has been done on MyScholarShop. The shop has saved more than $1.3 million of Gardiner funds with discounts families received through Step Up’s relationship building with vendors.

Contact Person

For more detailed information, please read the handbook from Step Up for Students or AAA Foundation. If you still have any inquiry, don’t hesitate to contact the eligible parties:

Florida Department of Education
Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice
Turlington Building – Florida Department of Education
325 W. Gaines Street, Room 1044
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0400
1-800-447-1636 (Toll-Free Information Hotline)
850-245-0875 (Fax)


Step Up for Students
P.O. Box 54367
Jacksonville, FL 32245-4367


AAA Scholarship Foundation
PO Box 15719
Tampa, FL 33684-0719
888-707-2465 (Phone)
888-707-2465 (Fax)

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