The Florida Senate, on the special session's last day, improved the lot of people with unique abilities when it passed SB 2500-A, an appropriations bill that increases funding for adults and children with disabilities by more than $230 million over base funding.
“There are so many Floridians with unique abilities who are ready to further their education and their independence by learning the skills needed to contribute to Florida’s workforce in a meaningful way,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. “This critical funding will give people with unique abilities and their families a roadmap to education and employment opportunities that will help them on the path to economic independence.”
This bill and this issue has been on the top of Gardiner's wish list from the beginning.
“From the changes we made years ago to empower parents in the IEP process, to eliminating the special diploma, to the creation and expansion of the Personal Learning Scholarship Account Program, to the establishment of postsecondary options and promotion of career opportunities, I am so grateful to my Senate colleagues and to Speaker Crisafulli for their ongoing support and commitment to making a pathway to economic independence a reality for Floridians with unique abilities,” Gardiner continued.
“I believe our work product will make a significant impact on the lives of individuals with unique abilities and their families for generations to come.”
Highlights of policy and funding initiatives dedicated to children and adults with disabilities, as provided by the Senate president's office, are included here:
Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts: $55 million, including $53.4 million for student scholarships (up from $18.4 million in Fiscal Year 2014-15). PLSA funds support the second year of program implementation, including expansion of the program to include 3- and 4-year-old children with disabilities, students with muscular dystrophy, and students with autism under a broader autism spectrum disorder definition.
Postsecondary Education Options for Students with Unique Abilities: $8 million (in the State University budget) to coordinate information, expand rigorous program options, and provide tuition assistance for students with unique abilities to attend college and prepare for career and life success.
The Legislature established the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities at UCF ($1.5 million) to coordinate the dissemination of information about postsecondary education opportunities, programs, support, and services available for individuals with disabilities; manage and facilitate implementation of the Comprehensive Transition Program (CTP); and provide technical assistance to expand best practices and partnerships that facilitate access to meaningful credentials and job opportunities.
Additionally, the Legislature established an approval process and grant program for Florida colleges and universities to start or expand rigorous Florida Postsecondary Comprehensive Transition Programs (CTPs) ($3 million, with $300,000 maximum grant award per institution) for students with intellectual disabilities. The budget funds tuition assistance grants ($3.5 million, at $7,000 per scholarship) for students attending the approved CTPs to cover the student’s cost of tuition, program fees, instructional materials, and other costs of attendance.
McKay Scholarships: $228 million to the John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program that allows parents of students with disabilities to choose the best academic environment for their children. This program provides eligible students the opportunity to attend a participating private school or transfer to another public school. Funding was increased by an estimated $22.2 million over the current fiscal year.
Florida Unique Abilities Partner Program: $200,000 to create the Florida Unique Abilities Partner program to designate businesses that provide employment opportunities or other support for people with disabilities as Florida Unique Abilities Program Partners.
FEFP ESE Guaranteed Funding: $6.7 million increase in FEFP funding for supplemental services for students with low to moderate disabilities for a total of $830.1 million.
FEFP- Level 4 and 5 ESE Services: an estimated $31 million increase in funding for services to students with significant disabilities for a total of $379 million.
Early Steps: $13 million increase in funding to serve children 0-3 with suspected or established developmental delay for a total of over $69 million.
Instructional Materials: At least $3 million (of FEFP funding for instructional materials) must be spent by school districts for the purchase of digital instructional materials for students with disabilities.
Workforce Development Pilot Program: $63,998 (of workforce education funds) is provided to fund an Adults with Disabilities Workforce Education Pilot Program in select Florida counties.
Vocational Rehabilitation Services: $216 million in state and federal funds are set aside to ensure education and employment services for adults with disabilities are prioritized and improved.
The Inclusive Transition and Employment Management (ITEM) Program: $750,000 provides young adults with disabilities with transitional skills, education, and on-the-job experience to allow them to acquire and retain employment.
Johnson Matching Gift Program: $772,500 to the Johnson Scholarship, which is a competitively awarded program available to undergraduate students with disabilities with financial need who enroll in a State University System of Florida institution.
Home and Community Based Services: $56 million is appropriated to enroll additional people in the Agency for Persons with Disabilities waiver program and eliminate the waitlist. The waiver offers comprehensive services for persons with developmental disabilities. Total Funding: $994,793,906.
Supported Employment Services: $1 million for supported employment services for persons on the APD waiver waitlist. These funds will assist individuals who cannot be enrolled in the comprehensive program by offering targeted services to assist with employment.
Local Service Projects: $2.4 million for specific local providers serving persons with developmental disabilities including projects to expand work opportunities.
Florida Housing Finance Corp.: $10 million is provided for a competitive grant program for housing developments designed, constructed, and targeted for persons with developmental disabilities.
The State Apartment Incentive Loan (SAIL) Program: $48 million is provided for the SAIL Program. Each SAIL development must include between 5 percent and 10 percent of its units designed, constructed, and targeted for persons with a disabling condition.
State Housing Initiatives Partnership: $105 million in total funding. Each local government must use at least 20 percent of its allocation to serve persons with special needs, with first priority for persons with developmental disabilities.
Florida Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act: During the regular session, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 642, Senate Bill 644, and Senate Bill 646, by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-Fort Myers), creating the Florida Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act. The ABLE Act eases financial strains faced by individuals with disabilities by making tax-free savings accounts available to cover qualified expenses such as education, housing, and transportation.
This legislation implements the federal ABLE Act of 2014, which was sponsored by Congressman Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla. Currently, individuals with disabilities can have a maximum personal savings of only $2,000 before they start to lose federal benefits. The ABLE Act allows an individual with a disability that occurred before the age of 26 to save up to $100,000 for their future needs in a tax-free account without jeopardizing state and federal benefits. Those funds could then be used for certain expenses like education, housing, transportation, employment support or health and wellness, enabling the individual to have a higher level of economic independence and hopefully a better quality of life.
For more information, visit www.FLSenate.gov.