By Patrick B. McGuigan
Ron Brown, a former rural Oklahoma public school superintendent, has joined state Rep. Anastasia Pittman, an Oklahoma City Democrat, in supporting House Bill 3393, a proposed special needs scholarship program. Also backing the legislation was a MidTown Oklahoma City mother of three, including a special needs son.
At a state Capitol press conference today (Wednesday, May 5), Brown explained his support for the legislation co-sponsored by state Rep. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City and Sen. Patrick Anderson of Enid, both Republicans.
Brown told reporters, “This bill makes me feel good, and happy about helping kids. There is no danger at all to public schools and, in fact, there will be benefits from this bill being passed and signed into law. Those who will benefit are the parents of special needs children, and the children themselves.”
He continued, “I am one of those parents. My wife and I finally sold our home in order to move with our daughter, who has special needs, into the district where she had been receiving her services for many years. Our daughter has several disabilities.
“The idea is that the money follows the kid. The only amount to go anywhere is the money that goes, as it should, with the child. The dollars go with that disabled child. I was a superintendent for 15 years. This is indeed a win for special needs children and parents.”
In his prepared comments, Brown said, “Why shouldn’t we do something specifically for the people who have been left behind? I believe this scholarship bill will level the playing field for special-needs kids, and I am all for it.”
Brown served in three districts -- Taloga, Roff and McLish -- before moving to Ada. His family participated in a co-op bringing several small school districts together to pool resources for his daughter and similar students, an effort eventually disbanded.
Reaffirming her support for the Nelson-Anderson bill was Rep. Pittman, who has been an articulate advocate for the program since Nelson developed it last winter. She told the Capitol press corps, “This is about the needs of parents and children who have special needs. I am proud to stand with my colleagues who have taken a stand for these parents and for these children with special needs.
“This legislative is proactive. It will help keep good people here in Oklahoma. This legislation will raise the bar in education. It will make our school districts better, it will make our families stronger. This bill will bring better education and services for these children.”
Pittman promised, “Rep. Nelson and I started on this journey together, and we’re going to end it together.”
Emily Deal of Oklahoma City, a mother of three who confessed she is not accustomed to press conferences, praised the education her son has received in a private setting: “My son went from being non-verbal to being able to progress in school and education.” One reporter asked her, “What were your thoughts when you heard about this bill?” She answered, “I was ecstatic. It could provide me with a level of independence to provide adequately for my own children.”
Also boosting the proposal at today’s event was state Rep. Sally Kern, an Oklahoma City Republican who serves as vice-chairman of the House Education Committee. Kern said, “I support this, among other reasons, as a former public school educator. Classroom teachers need all the help they can get. I commend Sen. Anderson and especially Rep. Nelson for the great work they have done. The opposition to this bill is not focused on children, it is focused on maintaining the monopoly power that our systems have now over children.”
Richard “Dick” Komer, senior attorney at the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, told state Capitol reporters, “There are five programs along these lines already in effect. The programs in Florida, Georgia and Utah are the most like Oklahoma’s proposal. Arizona’s is different because rather than a scholarship it is a tax credit, not direct funding. In Ohio, the difference is that the funding is limited to children with autism, whereas this program is more inclusive in scope.”
Addressing criticisms from a national group that recently claimed Nelson’s proposal is unconstitutional, Komer observed, “All five of the states in question have Blaine Amendments [constitutional language banning government support to religious institutions]. In fact, the language in Georgia’s Blaine Amendment is virtually identical to Oklahoma’s. Only the program in Arizona was challenged, and it was upheld. Again, none of these programs have been successfully attacked, and only one has even ever been challenged. The ‘take-away’ point I’d give you is that parents are wildly happy about these programs, which have been studied.
“We are approaching 20 percent of all public education funding being for special education. This is a way to provide that ‘free and appropriate’ education, as in the statutory language, to special needs children. I have to point out that parents sometimes have different motivation or focus than systems. They want the best possible education, not necessarily what someone else might call ‘appropriate.’
“This proposal does not take away anyone’s rights. It adds resources to make those rights real. All this does is let non-wealthy people have the option of buying an education for their children like wealthier people do for their children. This is about empowering more parents to make the choices wealthy parents make every day.”
Rep. Nelson explained a decision made in recent weeks to separate a DHS program from H.B. 3393 into legislation to be carried now by state Rep. Steele, the House Republican leader-designate: “We took the DHS program out, in part to avoid the single subject rule that the courts have been applying. We have made some other changes. We believe the bill is now a win-win.”
Nelson continued, “In terms of the effect on school districts, the money is limited to the money for the children who have these conditions. If the child is diagnosed, the money follows him or her. If he or she leaves, the district never has the money any way. The money is not being ‘taken’ from any district, it is staying with the child in need of special education services.”
Sen. Anderson said, “This is all about giving parents choices. School funding formulas are complicated, but this boils down pretty simply. The money that would be spent in a district if that child stayed there goes with the child if he or she leaves. The district would only have the money in the first place if the child stayed there.
“The most important thing is to make that child productive and better. If we don’t help these children grow and more productive when they are young, then we’ll have the state have to step in later. The agenda here, the goal, is that these children can reach for the best possible outcomes.”