The first bill to pass the Florida Senate in 2016 was a piece of unfinished business from the disastrous conclusion of the 2015 session.
The Senate voted 39-0 on Wednesday morning for legislation that promises to provide new post-secondary education options to students with special needs. Specifically it sets aside $8 million for colleges, universities and other schools to create higher education and transition programs for students with intellectual disabilities. It also designates $1.5 million for a statewide coordination center to help students with “unique abilities” and their parents find programs and services.
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said he envisions a clearinghouse that can help parents of special needs children find what kind of programs might be out there to help them.
"Whenever a family finds out they have a child with unique abilities, we as a state say 'here are your list of options, here are the post secondary options,'" Gardiner said of his vision of how a key part of the legislation will work.
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The bill has been a top priority for Gardiner, but it was among dozens of proposals that died suddenly at the end of the 2015 Legislative Session. While the measure passed in the Senate 2015, it never made it to a vote in the House before the annual session ended abruptly over a budget dispute between the two chambers.
"It was a really emotional and special day," said Gardiner, who has a son with down syndrome.
But while a bill to help special needs students would seem uncontroversial, the bill did spark minor opposition from Democrats in the Senate because of a provision that would provide $14 million for school districts and charter schools that want to require school uniforms.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, questioned why that provision was being included in a bill that deals primarily with students with special needs, given the uniform funding would not be limited to just special needs students.
State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, responded to Gibson saying the bill was about “educational choice” and the school uniform funding would be an option for schools.
That wasn’t enough for Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, who called the provision a “giveaway to the school uniform industry.” Clemens said the $14 million would be better served being applied to other educational needs in the state, and not uniforms.
Clemens initially proposed an amendment to strip the language from the bill, but withdrew it before it could be voted on because it was unlikely to win support in the Republican-dominated Senate.
In 2015, the state set aside $10 million for school uniform incentives, but charter schools could not apply for the money independently of the school district in their county. But the new legislation would allow that.
Eight counties have received funding for school uniforms so far: Alachua, Bay, Miami-Dade, Flagler, Madison, Osceola, Polk and Taylor.
The bill heads to the House later this week. The bill must pass both chambers of the Legislature before it can be sent to Gov. Rick Scott for his approval.