Brandon Berman is 17 years old and is one of the approximately 1,700 students participating in Florida’s Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA) program. Brandon is autistic and has muscular dystrophy, seizures, spastic paraplegia, and a feeding tube, and he is most likely going to die from a brain tumor. He also has an unwavering desire to learn, and his parents have fought to make sure he gets that opportunity.
“He has a fatal diagnosis,” his mother, Donna Berman, recently told me by phone. “As long as he wants to learn and as long as I can give an education to him, I will.”
Florida’s PLSA program provides an education savings account for special-needs students and has proven to be a perfect solution for students like Brandon. Parents initially pay for approved educational services and then are reimbursed. Funding provided through the program can pay for everything from instructional materials to curriculum to approved specialized services and therapies.
This year Florida legislators have tripled the amount of money allocated for the program, raising funding from $18.4 million to $53.4 million. That’s enough money to help more than 5,000 students during the next school year. This year, the first year of the program, about 1,700 students received accounts.
Eligibility now includes three- and four-year-olds with diagnoses covered by the program. Students with muscular dystrophy and anywhere on the autism disorder spectrum will also be eligible. Previously, the state used a nonmedical definition of autism that excluded some autistic students. Part-time tutoring will now be an approved expense for children enrolled fulltime as private school or homeschool students.
These changes show Florida legislators have recognized the need for flexibility and choice when designing special-education funding. The rest of country should consider enacting similar legislation, because a program such as this makes an enormous difference to each family it serves.
The Berman family of Port Orange has tried almost every educational option available to special-needs students in Florida.
“We’ve tried all the routes of the school,” said Berman, a licensed practical nurse who has taught and cared for her son since his health began to decline. “We did the McKay Scholarship. We tried homebound options more than once. But four hours a week—four hours total of direct instruction with a teacher—it’s just not enough.”
The PLSA program allows Berman to tailor Brandon’s education. She can teach him while they wait in doctors’ offices. Berman says she has been successful in stretching the funding and making it cost-effective by carefully determining how to spend it.
“We learned all about fabric and then learned math and science through the sewing machine,” said Berman. “We’ve grown gardens. All the schools said he would never learn to read. They kept asking me why I continued to request a reading specialist and said he would never learn to read. Little did I know he knew how to read; he was just intimidated by the number of words on a page.”
Through a process of trial and error, Berman enlarged the size of the text on Brandon’s e-reader so the words visible on the screen were what would normally appear on a quarter of a page.
“It’s unfortunate that the public school system doesn’t see that not every child can be supported in a classroom,” said Berman. She says she knows there are good, hardworking teachers in many public schools but the education system prejudges some students and gives them less attention than they need.
“The PLSA has been an incredible gift,” said Berman. “It’s got great potential for children like mine who don’t fit into a specific program designed for special-needs students.”
Brandon recently insisted on reading a mystery book on his own without his mother’s help. The Boxcar Children books are now his favorites.
“I’ve seen him stand up taller,” said Berman. “I’ve seen him take pride again. It’s almost as if he didn’t feel he could succeed. He’s much more comfortable being included in things.”
Berman says there are misconceptions about the PLSA program.
“It’s not taking jobs away from people,” said Berman. “It’s not. It’s helping children. My son cannot be stuck in a caveman system when he has Space Age problems. We’re not making the schools go broke. It’s the same funding that would have been used for my son anyway, and now I have the funding to help him.”
Florida legislators deserve recognition for seeing the need to expand the PLSA program to help more families like the Bermans.
“No, he won’t be able to walk across a stage like other students,” Berman told me. “He won’t be able to collect a diploma with his peers, but his peers never really knew him, because of the way the system is set up. He can just become the best him. And he does matter.”