Choices and Challenges

All parents want the best for their children. Getting “the best,” however, can be vastly more complicated for a family that includes a child with disabilities. In Florida, thanks to a robust school choice environment, parents of students with disabilities have access to several educational options through two specific statewide scholarship programs: The McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities and the Gardiner Scholarship Program. Few recent studies, however, have explored parents’ experiences accessing and utilizing these scholarships. To shed light on how parents utilize these scholarships, a team of researchers from CERES Institute for Children and Youth, in partnership with the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, share findings from a mixed-methods study, conducted between fall 2019 to spring 2020, as well as implications for policy and practice. Interviewing nearly 100 parents and surveying nearly 4000 more, the authors sought to develop a deeper understanding of two research questions:

  • How do families who receive Gardiner and McKay scholarships navigate school choice and supplemental supports for their children?
  • How satisfied are parents with the scholarship schools they have chosen and the supports their children have received? 

Download the Choices and Challenges Policy Brief

Download the full report “Choices and Challenges: Florida Parents’ Experiences with the State’s McKay and Gardiner Scholarship Programs for Students with Disabilities


Based on both survey and interview data, the study finds that:

  • Navigating school choice in Florida for families of students with disabilities is complex. It is a journey that often requires significant time, energy, and additional financial resources. For some, the journey requires multiple transitions between schools before finding the right fit.


  • Nearly all parents (about 90%) of both Gardiner and McKay scholarship participants are somewhat or very satisfied with their child’s educational experience, citing transformative changes and benefits they perceive for themselves and their children.


  • Participating parents overwhelmingly recommend that the scholarship programs continue—with modifications that would reduce barriers to accessing or fully benefiting from the scholarship.

The report centers parents’ voices and their perspectives in an effort to illuminate the benefits and the limitations of an ongoing – and growing – statewide investment of hundreds of millions of dollars each year. The large sample size of the study and the mixed-methods approach build on previous literature not only about parents’ satisfaction, but also about the nature of their experiences and the constraints they encounter when trying to realize the promise that school choice offers to children with disabilities.


In Spring 2021, as this report is being released, the Florida state legislature passed legislation  (see HB7045) that would commit an additional $200M to the school choice program, expand eligibility, and merge the McKay and Gardiner Scholarships into the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, effective July 1st. This report demonstrates the urgent need to provide eligible families with easy-to-access, consistent, high-quality information and a supporting ecosystem of other parents, educators, school leaders, and scholarship-granting organizations to help them make the best choice for their children. As the state is poised to expand school choice, there is no better time to ensure that the expanded scholarship programs are more widely accessible and do not result in furthering educational and economic inequities. The report’s findings raise several considerations for policymakers, other decision makers, parents and researchers.

  • Equip parents with user-friendly, robust resources that help them to make informed choices. The process of selecting and enrolling in a scholarship school could be made simpler and more transparent by providing parents with a single searchable online database that allows them to learn more about key characteristics of the schools and the populations they serve.


  • Level the playing field to create more equitable access. This study identified disparities in how much parents spend beyond their scholarship on education. The authors encourage further study of how this affects lower-income families, and urge  policymakers and scholarship management organizations to consider how to create more equitable access to specialized services when the cost exceeds the family’s financial resources.


  • Critically examine transitions between school levels, especially to and from middle school. In both private and public schools, natural transitions that occur between elementary and middle school and middle to high school pose an additional challenge to families of children with specialized learning needs.


  • Continue to improve schools’ accountability to parents and to other oversight agencies. Since the inception of the McKay and Gardiner programs, the state has passed a number of measures designed to increase accountability. These measures do not guarantee that each child will receive a high-quality education or find the right fit. The most recent legislation expanding school choice (see HB7045) does not enhance accountability despite the infusion of millions of additional dollars. 


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This research was generously supported by the Walton Family Foundation. All views are the authors’. 

By Shannon Varga, Albert Cheng, Emily Coady, Yawei Huang, Shea Martin, Cathleen Donohue, Anna Skubel, Jonathan Zaff, Marissa Cole & Michelle Hynes