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I believe all children deserve the opportunity to pursue their own unique education and career goals. Unfortunately, as my wife and I experienced following the birth of our son, all too often children diagnosed with developmental disabilities lose out on important opportunities as services are provided through a one-size-fits-all system that too frequently leads to a life of government dependence.

There is a better way.

This year, the Florida House and Senate passed a package of legislation that represents a complete cradle to career pathway to economic independence for people with unique abilities.

This comprehensive legislation will greatly expand PreK-12 education options for students with unique abilities through the Personal Learning Scholarship Account Program (PLSA). Created in 2014, PLSAs provide K-12 students who have a disability the option to apply for scholarship funds that can be used to pay for a wide range of education options, including specialized services and therapies, instructional materials, tuition at a private school, or tutoring.

The program was expanded in the 2015-16 budget, for one year only, to include additional students on the autism spectrum, students with muscular dystrophy, and three and four year olds with unique abilities. 2016 legislation by Senator Gaetz codifies this extension in state law, permanently expanding the pool of students eligible to apply for a PLSA.

We saw a 100 percent growth in the first two years of the PLSA program, which now serves approximately 4300 students. We will not stop there.

To create a complete cradle to career pathway to economic independence, we need to expand options for postsecondary education and employment options for Floridians with unique abilities who seek to contribute to Florida’s workforce.

Senator Gaetz’s legislation establishes a process our colleges and universities can use to create a Florida Postsecondary Comprehensive Transition Program (FPCTP) for these students. The bill creates a Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities for statewide coordination of these programs at the University of Central Florida and includes funding for scholarships.

Additional legislation, sponsored by Senator Detert, creates the Florida Unique Abilities Partner Program to recognize businesses that employ individuals who have a disability. Senator Hukill sponsored legislation that will establish a financial literacy program to help individuals with unique abilities navigate the complex network of federal and state requirements and find employment resources. Senator Ring sponsored legislation to establish an interagency plan with reporting requirements to ensure the state leads by example and improves employment options for individuals who have a developmental disability and wish to serve in state government.

With the support of Governor Scott and Speaker Crisafulli, these bills saw passage during the first week of our legislative session in early January. Again, we will not stop there. We will also advance legislation to strengthen our existing Early Steps and Vocational Rehabilitation programs. 

Last year, the Legislature appropriated a significant increase in recurring funding for Early Steps. Senator Sobel is advancing key policy improvements to this critical program. Not only will we expand eligibility, but by creating performance standards and accountability measures we can improve early identification, implement statewide planning, better coordinate resources, and help children to successfully transition to school district services.

To provide effective job training for adults with unique abilities, we need to measure outcomes within Florida’s Vocational Rehabilitation program. Senator Gaetz is sponsoring legislation to create a performance improvement plan to ensure children and adults receive the services they need and do not slip through the cracks of a large government program.

I know firsthand that it is not the government, but individuals with unique abilities and their families who make the best decisions about education and career choices. Government’s limited role is to make sure that we have the proper resources in place and that families have the facts they need to make informed choices. Instead of focusing on limitations classified by people, these bills celebrate the fact that each person has unique gifts endowed by God.

Every life has value. Just as Camille and I challenge our son to live up to his full potential,  I believe as policymakers, we should encourage all people with unique abilities to utilize the resources our state has to offer as they journey toward economic independence. That is how we can break the cycle of dependence and instead create a true cradle to career pathway to economic independence for people with unique abilities.