Parents Like School Choice Programs for Disabled Students but Navigating is a Challenge

Parents Like School Choice Programs for Students with Disabilities but Describe the Process of Using Scholarships as Overwhelming, According to a New Report

BU Wheelock’s CERES Institute today released Choices and Challenges, a new report which found that navigating Florida’s school choice for students with disabilities can be time-consuming and costly

Florida parents of children with disabilities want statewide scholarship programs to continue but with modifications to reduce barriers to accessing the scholarships and more help in navigating a complex search for the most appropriate, beneficial educational experiences for their children, according to a new report.

The report, Choices and Challenges, sheds light on the perspectives of Florida parents eligible for two specific statewide scholarship programs that serve students with disabilities: the Gardiner and McKay scholarships.

Researchers found that nearly all parents 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.

This report is being released as the Florida legislature voted to expand the state’s school choice programs. With the passage of HB7045, the McKay and Gardiner scholarships will be merged into the Family Empowerment Scholarship and the program will be significantly expanded.

Legislators tend to regard the school choice system as straightforward. But, the systematic analysis of parents’ journeys shared in the report paints a much more complex picture of the scholarship programs in Florida. Parents describe navigating the scholarship school and resource landscape as 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, or simply not a good fit. About two-thirds of parents who got scholarships still reported having to supplement them by paying out of pocket for their child’s education, according to the report.

This report demonstrates the urgent need to provide eligible families with easy-to-access, consistent, high-quality information and a supportive ecosystem of other parents, educators, school leaders, and scholarship-granting organizations to inform and guide them as they seek the best fit for their children.

A team of researchers spoke to nearly 100 parents and surveyed more than 4,000 additional parents to produce the report, at the CERES Institute for Children and Youth at Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, in partnership with the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

The report centers parents’ voices and their perspectives in an effort to illuminate the benefits and the limitations of an ongoing statewide investment of hundreds of millions of dollars each year. The large, state-wide sample and the mixed-methods approach build on previous research about parents’ satisfaction,   by digging into the constraints they encounter when trying to realize the promise that school choice is supposed to offer to their children with disabilities.

Report author Shannon Varga said: “As Florida is poised to expand school choice, there is no better time to ensure that the scholarship programs parents are satisfied with are widely accessible and do not result in furthering educational and economic inequities. Our report has shown 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. This report highlights multiple suggestions directly from parents who use these scholarships that could help expand positive educational experiences for students with disabilities.”

Report co-author Albert Cheng, Assistant Professor at the Department of Education Reform in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas, said: “Parents are overwhelmingly satisfied with the opportunities that the McKay and Gardiner programs offer. However, like all parents figuring out how to best meet the educational needs of their children, they face particular challenges with getting their needs met. The recent expansion of these programs is an opportunity for all Floridians to take the groundwork laid in the past and build something better for the future.”

Notes to editors

The full report is available to download here. An accompanying policy brief is here.

The CERES Institute for Children & Youth at Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development is dedicated to community-engaged research and evaluation. Our work is premised on the belief that the best solutions for strengthening programs for children, youth, and families emerge by authentically partnering the expertise in communities with the expertise of community-engaged researchers and evaluators. Through a co-constructive process, communities and community-engaged researchers can identify the core problems that young people are facing, design solutions that capitalize on the inherent assets of young people and their communities, and continually learn and improve on these solutions until educational and other life outcomes are realized for all. Importantly, these partnerships should result in community-based organizations building their internal capacity to learn and improve. Visit us at and sign up to receive updates on our work. Follow us on Twitter @CERESInstitute and LinkedIn.

The University of Arkansas was founded in 1871 as the flagship institution of higher education for the state of Arkansas. Established as a land grant university, its mandate was threefold: to teach students, conduct research, and perform service and outreach. The College of Education and Health Professions established the Department of Education Reform in 2005. The department’s mission is to advance education and economic development by focusing on the improvement of academic achievement in elementary and secondary schools. It conducts research and demonstration projects in five primary areas of reform: teacher quality, leadership, policy, accountability, and school choice.

For more information: Contact Marissa Cole Cell # 339.364.0783