Special needs scholarship bill clears House

CapitolBeatOK Staff Report

Published: 04-Mar-2010

Lawmakers voted Thursday (March 4) to provide scholarships and increased educational opportunities to children with special needs.

“This legislation acknowledges the fact that children with special needs have unique challenges. If those needs are not properly addressed in their assigned local school, I believe we should give those families the opportunity to attend the school that provides the best learning environment for their children,” said state Rep. Jason Nelson, an Oklahoma City Republican.

House Bill 3393, by Nelson, creates the Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program.

Under the bill, students with disabilities (such as those with Down’s syndrome or autism) who have an individualized education program (IEP) would qualify for a scholarship to attend any school (public or private) that meets the accreditation requirements of the State Board of Education.

The scholarship program would not require new spending during the downturn, but would merely redirect existing funds that are currently being spent on the student. A group of parents and advocates for special-needs children were present for the House vote, including representatives from Trinity School, a private school that serves children with learning disabilities in the Oklahoma City area.

“At Trinity, we serve students with a wide range of disabilities – or learning ‘differences’ – that are often not sufficiently addressed in the public schools,” said Kelly Feroli, president of the Trinity School board. “Before coming to Trinity, many of our students were not receiving the services they needed or were ‘stuck’ in the process. That’s why House Bill 3393 is so important. It is the first step to give parents a choice to get services for their child in a more efficient manner.”

“We need to find the right fit for each student to get the education that they need,” said Jennifer Vaught, an intervention specialist who is head of school for Trinity School. “We have seen students thrive when placed in the right learning environment. One of our students with severe dyslexia now makes a 4.0 in high school and scores above average on IQ tests. So we are talking about changing a person’s entire life and even saving their life in some instances. Giving these kids a quality education allows them to go on to college, to technical school, and become a productive member of society. To me, that’s what this bill is about – changing the lives of students.”

Andrea Kersey, mother of a child with high-functioning autism and founder of Heartland Academy in Tulsa, has endorsed the legislation. Scheduled to open in 2010, the school will be dedicated to the education of students from 6th grade through 12th grade with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome.

State law currently allows school districts to transfer a student on an IEP, including tuition, to a different public school better suited to serve the special needs of the child. School districts may also partner with another public or private school to meet the requirements of a student’s IEP.

“It only makes sense to provide the same set of choices to the parents of these students that are currently provided to the school districts,” Nelson said. H.B. 3393 also amends the Self-Directed Care Pilot Program administered by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services by expanding the program statewide and making it permanent. Under the program, individuals with developmental disabilities are given a budget allowance in which they direct services rather than a third party. This creates a saving that is shared by the individuals directing and receiving the service and with the Department of Human Services.

Money for the current program, the home- and community based services, is funneled through third-party provider agencies that direct the care, rather than the family. Because of the expense associated with third-party directed services, there is less money available to pay for those services. HB 3393 will allow the state to expand services to more people even in the middle of the state’s budget crisis.

Under H.B. 3393, families will be provided a monthly budget and allowed to directly hire care staff at market-based rates. Families can also use the program to get much needed respite care. Nelson said.

H. B. 3393 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 78-19 vote. It now proceeds to the state Senate.

The broad coalition of 78 members backing the measure included all Republicans except two, and Oklahoma City Democrats such as state Reps. Anastasia Pittman (who gave the measure a boost at a joint appearance with Rep. Nelson when it was unveiled in January) and state Rep. Al McAffrey.