Senate President Andy Gardiner, backed by thousands of families, teachers and supporters across the state has officially ended the days of special needs kids being shunned in the classroom, their needs ignored and their abilities dismissed.

With the swipe of his pen, Governor Rick Scott has expanded Florida’s PLSA program and renamed it after Senate President Andy Gardiner. Flanked by Senate President Andy Gardiner and his family, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, and the lawmakers who sponsored the legislation, Scott approved SB 672 this afternoon during a ceremony in the governor’s office.

The new law increases funding for Gardiner scholarships by roughly a third, to $71.2 million. It also allows more 3- and 4-year-olds to use the education savings accounts for students with special needs, and makes them available to children with muscular dystrophy and a wider range of students with autism.

The scholarships, previously known as Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, allow families to pay for school tuition, therapy, curriculum and other education-related services of their choice. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer them.

Earlier in the day, Gardiner, whose family provides the namesake for the scholarships, praised another aspect of the law, which expands programs for special needs students at state universities. Scott also approved HB 7003, aimed at helping more special-needs students join the workforce.

In a statement, Gardiner said the new laws will help make Florida “the state where all people have access to an education suited to their own unique needs and the opportunity to achieve their career goals.”

“The complete cradle-to-career pathway to economic independence will make a significant impact on the lives of individuals with unique abilities and their families for generations to come,” he said.

Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, said in a statement that the new laws never would have come about without advocacy from parents. (Gardiner has a son with Down syndrome.)

“It wasn’t all that long ago when students with disabilities were shunned in classrooms; their needs ignored and their abilities dismissed,” Levesque said. “Every time I see a child with unique abilities, behind him or her I see a parent with unique passion and commitment.”

Author: Travis Pillow Travis Pillow spent his early professional career reporting on the inner workings of state government for a variety of news organizations, and became immersed in Florida’s education policy debates while covering schools and the Legislature for the Tallahassee Democrat. A product of Seminole County Public Schools, he received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida in 2010. Reach him at tpillow@sufs.org or (407) 376-3105. Also, follow him on Twitter @travispillow.