Oklahoma Senate sends special needs program to governor

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 26-May-2010

The state Senate of Oklahoma narrowly approved a special needs scholarship program today (Wednesday, May 26). With every member present, the upper chamber consented to House Bill 3393, the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program.

The measure cleared the House of Representatives last Friday on a 54-46 vote, and will soon head to the desk of Governor Brad Henry. Lengthy Senate debate was relatively subdued compared to last week’s House deliberations. However, while no Senate Democrats backed the measure, it gained four Democrats in the lower chamber.

Senate deliberations included declarations of admiration for Senator Patrick Anderson, the Enid Republican carrying the bill, and House sponsor Jason Nelson, an Oklahoma City Republican.

Opposition was led by state Sen. Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City, leader-designate for Democrats. Rice had supported prior legislation to allow tax credits for private contributions in support of private education scholarships for children in failing public schools. However, he said H.B. 3393 was filled with “ideas that are well-intended but which will leave kids behind” in public schools.

In opposing the bill, Rice nonetheless praised work done at Villa Teresa School, a MidTown Oklahoma City Catholic school that includes special needs students.

Others speaking against the bill were Senators Sean Burrage of Claremore, Earl Garrison of Muskogee, Kenneth Corn of Poteau, Mary Easley of Tulsa, Debbe Leftwich of Oklahoma City, Richard Lerblance of Hartshorne, Connie Johnson of Oklahoma City and Jay Paul Gumm of Durant.

Johnson broke against the measure although she had supported it in conference. Lerblance had the shortest negative argument: “If you are truly for public education, vote no on this bill.”

Questioning provisions in the H.B. 3393 were Senators Gumm, Garrison and Corn. The queries incorporated assertions the measure would result in lost financing for public schools.

Gumm pressed Anderson on possible fraud in the program and beliefs among some foes that it should be centrally controlled rather than allowing scholarships to be processed by and through local school districts. He also argued for stricter oversight.

Anderson responded that the measure incorporated the suggestions of Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett and her staff. He also pointed out that schools accepting students receiving the scholarships must follow existing state Education Department certification standards, and said that parents were the best judges of the effectiveness of services for their children. 

Several foes said it would be better to “lay over” the bill and conduct an interim study, bringing the proposal back next year.

Closing debate for opponents, Sen. Gumm asked members of the Senate to “reject the conference committee report” and require a summer of interim work. Despite good words for Anderson, Gumm said, “the authors of this bill had a chance to avoid opposition but chose a path that guaranteed opposition.” Gumm also said the bill would “do maximum damage to public education, and a minimum number of people would be helped.”

While Gumm was passionate in opposition, Anderson was restrained in support, giving careful responses to sometimes aggressive criticisms.

Also speaking for the bill were Senators Mike Mazzei of Tulsa and Steve Russell of Oklahoma City.

Russell questioned “the assumption that public schools are always the best way to educate children.” He said, “The best way to educate our children is the best way to educate our children. Special needs warrant special consideration.” He encouraged members to “stand up for these children and vote yes.”

Senator Mazzei noted his adopted daughter had benefited from special education in both public and private schools. He argued “there are different answers for different kids. There are different solutions for different families.” Mazzei said he wanted for other children, and families, choices he can afford for his.

In addition to Mazzei, Senators Burrage and Easley offered deeply personal reflections on special needs children in their own families or immediate circle of friends.

Relating experiences with his son, Burrage said he appreciated the intent of the sponsors, but said he opposed their proposal. “If I’ve ever seen a bill that needed further study it is this one,” he argued. Burrage said the proposal needed enhanced accountability, among other things.

Sen. Easley spoke of her grandson, a special needs child, and said her family had concluded public schools were the best setting for him. 

In brief closing remarks, Anderson said sponsors “sat down with Sandy Garrett” and incorporated her input.

He said, “This legislation will not hurt public education, it will help children with special needs.” He affirmed his status as “a product of public education,” whose own children attend public schools.

Anderson’s colleagues supported the measure by the narrowest of margins, 25-22. One Republican joined 21 Democrats in opposition. Minority Leader Charlie Laster of Shawnee did not vote. The remaining 25 Republicans united to back the bill.

After the vote was declared but before senators moved on to other business, Sen. Burrage, who sits near the back of the Senate chamber, walked over to congratulate Anderson and shake his hand.

Anderson glanced to his right, extending his hand to Gumm, who sits near him on the Senate floor. Gumm responded in kind.