Releasing Choices and Challenges

By Shannon M. Varga, Ph.D., Associate Director of Research and Evaluation for the CERES Institute for Children and Youth

Today we release Choices and Challenges, our latest research that sheds light on the perspectives of Florida parents eligible for two specific statewide scholarship programs that serve students with disabilities: the McKay and Gardiner scholarships. 

Florida is one of the first states to implement a statewide school choice scholarship program for students with disabilities, and has one of the largest private school choice programs in the nation. Just this week, legislators voted to expand the program by an additional $200M. Choices and Challenges centers parents’ voices and their perspectives in an effort to illuminate the benefits and the limitations of the McKay and Gardiner Scholarships. The report’s insights are informed by nearly 100 parent interviews and a state-wide survey of more than 4,000 additional parents conducted by our team in partnership with the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. 

We found that nearly all parents surveyed and interviewed for this report who received the McKay and Gardiner scholarships are satisfied with their child’s current educational experiences. Many parents we interviewed described how, after enrolling in the right school with the scholarship, their children displayed social, behavioral, or academic changes that opened up opportunities for new experiences the parents felt they might not have had otherwise. Some examples from interviews include their children being invited on playdates, graduating high school, and developing career interests. The shift in outlook can feel profound for parents who have invested significant time and energy to access more support for their children. 

However, too many parents also say that navigating the school and resource landscape feels like “a full-time job,” without a roadmap. Parents felt the lack of a roadmap led to unnecessary stops along their journey at schools that were not consistently equipped to serve their children. Additionally, despite being grateful for the financial support the scholarships provide, over two-thirds of participating parents still reported paying out-of-pocket for their child’s education. Parents felt these factors might prevent more families from being able to actually use or benefit from the scholarships.

To access the full report, policy brief, and social media toolkit, visit ceresinstitute.org/choices-and-challenges 

—Shannon M. Varga, Ph.D. is a Research Assistant Professor in the Wheelock College of Education & Human Development at Boston University and is Associate Director of Research and Evaluation for the CERES Institute for Children and Youth.

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