OPPAGA text logo with graphic of FL historic capitol
OPPAGA text logo with graphic of FL historic capitol

Education System

Exceptional Student Education

What is the purpose of the ESE Program?

The Exceptional Student Education (ESE) Program provides students with disabilities and gifted students with expanded opportunities through collaboration of families, professionals, and communities to ensure the achievement of exceptional students.

Who is eligible for ESE services?

Section 1003.01, Florida Statutes, specifies that exceptional students are eligible for ESE services. Exceptional students include gifted students and students with qualifying disabilities. Qualifying disabilities include
  • an intellectual disability;
  • autism spectrum disorder;
  • a speech impairment;
  • a language impairment;
  • an orthopedic impairment;
  • an other health impairment;
  • traumatic brain injury;
  • a visual impairment;
  • an emotional or behavioral disability;
  • a specific learning disability, including, but not limited to, dyslexia, dyscalculia, or developmental aphasia;
  • students who are deaf or hard of hearing or dual sensory impaired;
  • students who are hospitalized or homebound; and
  • children with developmental delays ages birth through five years, or children ages birth through two years with established conditions.
For the 2019-20 school year, 592,197 students were classified as exceptional students in Florida. More information on qualifying disabilities, eligibility standards, referral information, and evaluation requirements is provided on the Department of Education's website.

What special education services do exceptional students receive?

Special education services are defined as specially designed instruction and related services necessary for an exceptional student to benefit from education. Such services may include
  • transportation;
  • diagnostic and evaluation services;
  • social services;
  • physical and occupational therapy;
  • speech and language pathology services;
  • job placement;
  • orientation and mobility training;
  • braillists, typists, and readers for the blind;
  • interpreters and auditory amplification;
  • services provided by a certified listening and spoken language specialist;
  • rehabilitation counseling;
  • transition services;
  • mental health services;
  • guidance and career counseling;
  • specified materials, assistive technology devices, and other specialized equipment; and
  • other such services approved by the rules of the State Board of Education.

What kind of accommodations are provided to ESE students?

Students with qualifying disabilities receive accommodations to help maintain or improve their academic performance. The types of accommodations students receive depend on the nature and type of disability they have. Accommodations can be provided in four areas.
  • Presentation-how students receive information
  • Responding-how students show what they know
  • Setting-how the environment is made accessible for instruction and assessment
  • Scheduling-how time demands and schedules may be adjusted
The Department of Education publishes a manual to help teachers and parents decide on the accommodations to provide to individual students.

What is an Individual Education Plan (IEP)?

An Individual Education Plan (IEP) is a document that must be developed for each eligible student or child with a disability served by a school district, or other state agency that provides special education and related services. District and school instructional personnel work with parents to determine the needs of individual students in an ESE program, and how the school will provide the needed services. The IEP must contain the student's present academic achievement levels and functional performance, measurable annual goals designed to meet the student's needs, and a statement of special education and related services and supplementary aids and services. The IEP is reviewed annually and revised as necessary.

What settings do school districts use to provide ESE services to students with disabilities?

School districts make placement determinations for students with disabilities in accordance with the Least Restrictive Environment provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). To the maximum extent appropriate, students with disabilities are educated in settings with students who are not disabled. School districts may also provide services to students in other instructional settings such as exceptional student education centers, resource rooms, or separate classes. Districts work with parents to determine which of these placement settings will provide students with appropriate educational opportunities in the least restrictive environment.

What choice programs are available for ESE students with disabilities?

The McKay Scholarship Program was established to provide an option for eligible students who wish to attend a public or private school of their choice.  Eligible students include those with an IEP or a 504 accommodation plan.
ESE students also have the option to participate in the Gardiner Scholarship Program, which provides funds for eligible students to purchase instructional materials, curriculum, or specialized services; and pay for tuition and fees for private schools, postsecondary institutions, or private tutoring.
For more information on these programs, please refer to the Choice Scholarship Programs profile.

For how long may students with disabilities receive ESE services?

Students may continue to seek a certificate of completion or a standard high school diploma and receive ESE services until they reach age 22.

Who are gifted students and how are they served through the ESE Program?

A gifted student is defined as having superior intellectual development and being capable of high performance. Once a district identifies a student as gifted, district and school personnel work with parents to develop an Educational Plan (EP), which includes a detailed statement of the student's present levels of performance, short and long term goals, the student's needs beyond the general curriculum, and the specially designed instruction to be provided to the student. The EP must also contain a projected date for the beginning of services, and the anticipated frequency, location, and duration of services. Once an EP is finalized, the school will deliver specially designed instruction to the gifted student according to his or her EP.  Most students who are identified as gifted spend the majority of their school day in general education classrooms; however, some students leave the general education classroom for part of the day to receive services in a gifted education class and a few children may spend all day in a gifted class. For more information on gifted programs, please see the Department of Education's website.

Who is responsible for designing, implementing, and monitoring programs for ESE students?

State Board of Education. As the chief policymaking body for education in Florida, the State Board of Education establishes the rules governing the ESE Program. The board's rules contain criteria based on federal and state laws for identification and assignment of exceptional students.
Department of Education. The Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services within the Division of Public Schools periodically monitors district ESE programs for quality and compliance with state and federal requirements and provides technical assistance when requested by a district or when deemed necessary through the department's monitoring efforts. The Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services also publishes a profile with details on the performance of exceptional students.
School Districts. Local school districts implement ESE programs as prescribed by the State Board of Education.  School district personnel identify eligible students and provide special education programs including specially designed instruction and related services. Districts provide ESE services to students in prekindergarten though twelfth grade based on students' individual needs.
The Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind (FSDB) is a state-supported residential public school for sensory impaired students in preschool through twelfth grade who meet the school's eligibility criteria. FSDB provides educational programs and support services to meet the education and related evaluation and counseling needs of hearing-impaired and visually impaired students. In addition to educational services, FSDB provides meals, boarding, and transportation to enrolled students.

What postsecondary options are available for students with disabilities?

Exceptional students who wish to enroll in a postsecondary institution to further their education have a variety of options.
  • Students may apply to any college or university as any traditional student would, and postsecondary institutions' disabilities offices can assist students in receiving accommodations, if needed, during their time enrolled at a college or university.  The Florida College System and Board of Governors provide additional information on these opportunities in Florida.
  • Section 1004.6495, Florida Statutes, establishes the Florida Postsecondary Comprehensive Transition Program Act, which aims to increase independent living, inclusive and experiential postsecondary education, and employment opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities through degree, certificate, or non-degree programs. The act creates an approval process for postsecondary institutions to offer education programs tailored to the needs of students with intellectual disabilities. Florida's Postsecondary Comprehensive Transition Programs (FPCTP) are to be offered at various postsecondary institutions throughout the state. The act also establishes a FPCTP Scholarship for eligible students who are enrolled in eligible programs. Finally, the act establishes the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities at the University of Central Florida for statewide coordination of information regarding programs and services for students with disabilities and their parents. The center is responsible for coordinating, facilitating, and overseeing the statewide implementation of the FPCTPs and disseminating information about available programs, supports, employment opportunities, and other services to students with disabilities and their parents.

How are these activities funded?

The Legislature annually appropriates funds for the ESE Program through the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP). The Florida Education Finance Program includes funding from both state and local resources. State funding primarily comes from general revenue, although a small portion of state funding for the Florida Education Finance Program is appropriated from state trust funds. Local funding is derived almost entirely from required local tax revenue generated by local property taxes. Funding through the Florida Educational Finance Program (FEFP) for the ESE Program is allocated by multiplying the ESE cost factor by the number of full-time equivalent students in the program. Detailed information on the Florida Education Finance Program can be found on the department's website.


Preemployment Transition Services.  Chapter 2020-85, Laws of Florida, clarifies that the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) provides preemployment transition services for students with disabilities between the ages of 14 and 21 who are eligible or potentially eligible for VR services. These services include job exploration counseling, work-based learning experiences, counseling on comprehensive transition or postsecondary transition education programs, workplace readiness training, and instruction in self-advocacy as required by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014. Data on preemployment transition services must be provided in VR's annual performance report.

Where can I find related OPPAGA reports?

A complete list of related OPPAGA reports is available on our website.

Where can I get more information?

What are the applicable statutes?

Whom do I contact for help?

Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services, 850-245-0475