Nelson’s special needs scholarship bill clears House

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 21-May-2010

House Bill 3933, sponsored by state Rep. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City, passed the House 54-46 today (Friday, May 21).

In debate, Nelson handled pointed questions from several legislators, including Democrats Neil Brannon of Arkoma, Ed Cannaday of Porum, Mike Shelton of Oklahoma City, Mike Brown of Tahlequah, Scott Inman of Oklahoma City, Jerry McPeak of Warner and Republicans Fred Jordan of Jenks and Ann Coody of Lawton. He also engaged in cordial colloquies with fellow Republicans Jeff Hickman of Dacoma, Kris Steele of Shawnee, Earl Sears of Bartlesville, and Sally Kern of Oklahoma City.

Brannon asserted Nelson’s bill is merely a voucher; Nelson countered that by dictionary definition it is a scholarship. In an exchange with Cannaday, Nelson explained scholarship amounts would use the same formula now in special education provisions of state law. With the agreement of the state Department of Education, totals would be set by formula and processed through local districts.

Shelton complimented Nelson’s work, while pressing on the disbursement structure. Nelson also replied to another Shelton question, explaining that due to exemptions this form of scholarship would not be treated as income to parents.

Hickman defended Nelson against criticisms of the concept from some members. Nelson explained that the state Department of Education had reviewed the proposed statute, as had the governor’s office, without registering objections. Some members worried about federal funding impacts, but Nelson said the proposal involves only state money.

Pat Ownbey raised questions on due process and family rights. Nelson explained families who decide to leave the public system take with them the scholarship and leave behind their right to sue a local school district. Parental placement removes the local district liability issue, and that is in harmony with federal law, Nelson said. 

Sears said he had struggled with liability concerns. Rep. Nelson explained the input and reviews of the Institute for Justice, the governor’s office, the state schools superintendent, House staff, and Senator Patrick Anderson of Enid, co-sponsor, in nailing down legal issues and concerns.

In his exchange with Sears, Nelson said calls to “slow down” on the issue were really calls to kill the idea. He noted it originated as a state Senate bill in 2003: “To wait is to say that a child can wait.”

Rep. Jordan pressed to shift disbursement responsibility from local districts. Nelson countered, “We’ve actually learned some things from the working of the system, a good system, in Florida. It makes more sense in our Oklahoma system to keep it local, with the state setting the amount. And we’ve inserted a 5 percent administrative fee for the local district.”

Steele, Republican leader-designate for 2011, pressed on the issue of costs. Nelson affirmed his view: “This allows us to make a major reform within the existing budget.”

Kern, vice chairman of the House Education Committee, asked about reports of abuse within the current system. Nelson responded by saying, “I’ve actually heard everything. Some parents report very good experiences. Others report bad experiences but it’s possible some of those are misunderstandings.”

When lengthy discussion turned to final debate, Rep. McPeak told the House, “Not one member of the Oklahoma Schools Advisory Council is for this bill. All the members are against this bill. “

In support, Sears said Nelson had gone “above and beyond to correct the questions and concerns that anyone and everyone had about this bill.” Sears said his local school superintendent had argued against the bill. He said he frequently heard from districts “about how this will cost them. I’ve not heard that much about the kids. Members, I have 32 years in education, and I was a building principal. I’ve been unsure about how to vote on this. Until last night.”

Rep. Sears disclosed he had received, at 9:30 pm Thursday, a phone call from “former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. I thought it was a joke at first, but then realized it was not. We had a delightful conversation.” Bush “told me how in Florida they heard that this program was going to be bad. I tell you he made an impact on me as he told me of the actual effect of this program and the good that it has done these last few years.”

Sears described receipt of an email from Wanda Felty, a special needs mother “who told me about what this bill could mean for special needs children.” Sears concluded, “You have heard over and over again about money, money, money. I ask you to step back and look at this on the basis of these children. Let’s write another, new page in the history of education in Oklahoma.”

Rep. Brannon repeated criticisms the measure might violate constitutional provisions against aid to religious institutions. He also said, “I’ve seen parents with disabilities who themselves had children with disabilities. Are they really the right ones to safeguard the rights and interests of that child? Members, I urge you to really think about this.”

Rep. McCullough, an attorney, spoke briefly in favor, saying he could not find “a nexus of liability” created for public school districts. Rep. Cannaday followed with arguments centered about procedural steps in Individual Education Plans (IEPs). 

Rep. Kern, favoring the bill, said the measure “boils down to a choice. You can choose families or the education establishment. This bill would allow the family, and parents who are trying to make it, to have hope for their children, for them to have the greatest opportunity to succeed. This reform would encourage the family and it sharpens the education entities.”

Rep. Coody spoke passionately against the measure, asserting it did not adequately mirror accountability in Florida’s program. She supported creating a task force and interim study on the issue. Coody contended the bill would be “bad for public education,” and urged her colleagues to vote no.

Hickman assailed a memorandum Rep. Jordan circulated, and said Cannaday had been inaccurate in contending supporters of HB 3393 were against public schools: “It’s not that anyone is against the public schools. It is that we are for these kids.”

Hickman noted the “vetting” of Superintendent Garrett and the governor’s staff. He said, “Rep. Nelson has answered every single concern raised, and has addressed others in detail and with care. He has answered your concerns. Those are all reasons to vote for this bill. But if none of those reasons are enough, then vote for these children and for their parents, who usually know what is best for their kids.”

Rep. Inman, leader-designate for House Democrats, said, “I have a philosophical position and I am opposed to vouchers. I view this as a wrong approach. This is a ‘we quit’ bill and I can’t support it. If you allow this, the children left behind will be harmed. Instead of a ‘fix it’ bill this is a ‘we quit’ bill.”

Inman asserted the measure would cost public schools money, and projected scenarios in which talented athletes with IEPs would leave public schools for private schools. Rep. Inman said, “This bill is bad for public education.”

Steele said, “most of you know I am a public school advocate. My dad is superintendent in the Jones Public Schools. … I am a proponent of the public schools, but I am not for protecting the status quo. This bill would allow us to protect and to help a group of kiddos without hurting public education.”

He concluded, “If you want to vote against this bill, then one reason is as good as another. But I hope you will vote for this bill.” Further, he said, “I will commit now to my colleagues that if there are challenges or issues, I will work to make those improvements and corrections in the years to come. But I ask you to join me today in supporting families, and in supporting children with special needs.”

Rep. Jordan, closing the debate for opponents, said, “In case there is any misimpression that those of us raising concern do not care about children with special needs, let me emphasize that we do.” Jordon argued the Oklahoma system needed greater accountability along the lines of the Florida system. He said he believes state authorities could better regulate such a program, as in Florida.

In closing the debate for supporters, Rep. Nelson had a flash of anger when he called on opponents to deal in “facts and documentation.” He asserted, “Nearly every issue raised in today’s debate has been addressed, documented and answered in this bill. For goodness’ sake can’t we stick to the facts?” Nelson pressed legal points, saying the measure is not unconstitutional. As for potential litigation, “It is the other side’s suggestions that would leave all the grounds for litigation in place. That is a fact.”

Concerning suggestions to delay implementation, Nelson said, “If we have to wait until it’s perfect, then we’ll never have this proposal in effect. No one expects to apply the same kind of rule to the existing system. If they did then we’d never have public education.” He added, “The governor’s office checked this out. The last time I checked he was a pretty strong advocate of public education.”

Wrapping up his commentary, Rep. Nelson said, “When you talk about disabled children, one of the things I have learned is that there are so many different kinds of disability, there are many different disabilities. I have talked to many of these parents and heard their stories. They are wrenching.

“First comes the moment when you are told this child has a serious disability. That is a shocking moment, it takes you into a new reality. There is a grieving process for a time as they, the parents, abandon or adapt the dreams they had for that child. Many of these parents are single parents, often single moms. As you have heard, the divorce rate is something like 80 percent because the burdens are so overwhelming. They need support. They seek help from their own parents, from friends, from everyone they can.”

In the IEP process, “What happens then is that this parent is negotiating on the turf of the local public school, on the standards of the local system. Imagine negotiating essentially on the value of your child.

“All I’m asking is that the option is created to let the money that the state is dedicating to special education, to let that money follow the child. In the Florida experience, outcomes have increased, the performance of the children being helped has improved. This is a common sense system, a common sense solution. It would be good for our system to let these families decide these things for themselves, for parents to have the power to choose what is best for their child.”

House Bill 3393 passed 54-46, with four Democrats and 50 Republicans in support. Supporters included state Rep. Anastasia Pittman of Oklahoma City, who has co-sponsored the measure since February.

Opposing the bill were 34 Democrats and 12 Republicans. On the emergency clause, the vote was 61-37, with 68 votes needed to assure the measure takes effect immediately after the governor’s signature. The emergency drew support from seven Democrats and 54 Republicans. In opposition were 29 Democrats and eight Republicans.

Rep. Nelson immediately sought recognition from the chair. He told members he may move for reconsideration of the emergency provision next week. 

The envisioned law is the “Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act.”