Seeking more positive tomorrows, Oklahoma school choice leaders push Arizona model

OKLAHOMA CITY – The architect of Oklahoma’s historic Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program benefiting special needs children has crafted a new bill to create Education Savings Accounts, patterned after a successful Arizona program.

State Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, is lead sponsor of the bill, with state Rep. Tom Newell, R-Seminole, as co-sponsor.

“If you are a parent who has the means to pay for education alternatives, you have true freedom over how your child is educated. If you have a lower income, your options are more limited. This legislation is about expanding those options for low-income families,” Rep. Newell said.

Nelson told CapitolBeatOK, “This would allow children and families to access tutoring, private school, therapies that are effective, building savings for college. The idea is to help families who really need help.”

State educators say children living in poverty present the most significant challenges in public school classrooms. Under H.B. 3398, students eligible for free or reduced price lunches under federal guidelines could receive up to 90 percent of funding that would have supported their education in a government school. For those above that level in family income up to 150 percent of the reduced lunch formula, they could receive 60 percent of the resources.

Nelson, who led the fight for the Henry Scholarship program benefiting handicapped children, said, “In my work on education and human services issues I approach every problem by asking what would I want for my children or my family in the same circumstances.”

Parents in the ESA program would receive debit cards, the use of which would be limited to a state-approved list of institutions or vendors.

Among those supportive of the Nelson-Newell legislation are Susan Agel, president of Positive Tomorrows School, Lauren Marshall of Public School Options’ national board of directors, Superintendent Cris Carter of the Oklahoma City Archdiocesan Catholic Schools, and Executive Director Pam Newby of Special Care, an organization working with children facing respiratory issues, learning disabilities, and autism.

Several of them addressed a recent press conference unveiling H.B. 3398, and spoke with Oklahoma Watchdog.

Agel’s facility, formerly a public school, is a private institution concentrating on the education of homeless children.

Marshall advocates for expanded use of online education and provision of tutors for children who need supplementary help, regardless of public, private or home school setting.

Carter said Catholic schools “have historically been an option for the poor or immigrants. The recently opened Good Shepherd School in Oklahoma City focuses on special needs children, including those with autism.

Newby is hopeful expanded choice would enable all the represented schools and programs to do a better job meeting the unique needs of children: “Education should not be one-size-fits-all.”

The Henry Scholarship program for special needs children is under legal challenge, in a case pending before the Oklahoma State Supreme Court.
Another advocate of Nelson’s proposal is Ashley Peters, who told reporters a story at the Capitol press conference.

Fourteen years ago at Positive Tomorrows, there was homeless little girl. Things in her life were so glum and depressing that she had forgotten it was her birthday. Then her teacher at the school brought her a bag with a gift inside.
Peters said, “That gift was a Walkman.”

Responding to laughter among the journalists, Peters said, “I know that the Walkman dates the story, but in those days a Walkman was a big, big thing.”

The other chidlren in the school sang happy birthday to that little girl. She broke down and cried, but they were tears of happiness.

Peters said, “Life wasn’t easy then, but Positive Tomorrows makes each child feel special, and it made that little girl feel special. It helped her believe she could learn, and could make her life better. I am that little girl.”

Peters came to talk about a place, and about people, she loves. She continued, recounting that, “In my time at Positive Tomorrows, a positive seed was planted. It was watered and cared for. I’ve grown.”

Today, Peters is in law enforcement, working with at-risk kids in gang prevention.

“I see myself in them. I am worship director at my church. I am involved in my community. I owe this to Positive Tomorrows, the people I met there and along the way. I ask myself how can I give back, as it was given to me?”

Peters told CapitolBeatOK she hopes people at places like Positive Tomorrows can be empowered to help more little girls like she was.

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