Bipartisan legislative push begins for special-needs scholarship

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Special needs children, including those with Down’s syndrome or autism, would benefit from bills filed by state Reps. Jason Nelson and Anastasia Pittman, and by state Sen. Patrick Anderson. 

House Bill 3393, from Anderson and Nelson, would expand Oklahoma’s self-directed care program and allow scholarships for students with special needs. Separate legislation, Pittman’s House Bill 3327, focuses solely on the scholarship side of the issue.

The self-directed care program began in 2005. HB 3393 would create a “Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program.” As Nelson and Anderson explained at a state Capitol press conference, “students with disabilities who have an individualized education program (IEP) would qualify for a scholarship to attend any school which meet the accreditation requirements of the state Board of Education.” The bill would not increase state spending, but redirect exiting funds already being spent on students.

Anderson said, “Instead of having the child’s educational options limited to what the local school can provide, the scholarships would allow parents to select schools based on the child’s needs.”

Nelson, a Republican, represents much of the near Westside of Oklahoma City, including a portion of MidTown. Pittman, a Democrat, represents a district centered on the Eastside of the city. Sen. Anderson, a Republican, represents Enid.

Joining the three legislators at a briefing for reporters were Wanda Felty, Doris Erhart and Andrea Kersey, mothers of special needs children, and James Nicholson, division director for Developmental Disabilities Services at the state Department of Human Services. Kersey, mother of an 18-year-old son who is autistic, has opened a Tulsa school called Heartland Academy to meet the needs of students similar to her own child.

Felty described the wearing effects of the state’s current long-term waiting list to access services for children and adults with special needs. There are presently 5,329 people on those waiting lists, Felty told CapitolBeatOK. The proposed legislation has the potential to reduce the waiting list among the 2,058 individuals from age 7 to 18 who are possible beneficiaries.

For the targeted category of students, the new program builds on the Self-Directed Services (SDS) Pilot program that created a system to benefit disabled persons ”based on the principles of consumer choice and control.”

Nicholson of DHS explained the efficiencies already created by the program, and the high satisfaction families have expressed after three years of operations. He said DHS officials would work to sustain and improve the program if legislators make it permanent and add the scholarship mechanism. He said legislators are looking at ways “to use the dollars we have better.”

Residential programs would continue, at costs of around $55,000 a year per person. However, the self-directed programs can be delivered at a much lower cost, advocates of the proposed reforms noted. In all, the Development Disabilities Services programs reach about 9,000 Oklahomans, Nicholson said.

Rep. Nelson said, “This is not a partisan issue. It’s about helping these children.”

Near the end of the press conference at the state Capitol, Rep. Pittman praised her colleague, saying, “I want to commend Rep. Nelson for bringing this issue to public attention. It’s in our hearts to help these kids who have special needs in education and other ways. Anyone who has a problem about private schools or providers being able to participate in this program can talk to me. This idea is overdue.”

Pittman also said the new effort would allow Oklahoma “to do something spectacular for these children.” She said it is probably “impossible” to estimate the possible savings to the state from more effective programs for disabled persons, noting that any program that helps families “weather the storm” will mean less spending for counseling, food stamps and others costs.