Special needs scholarship ‘strengthened’ after technical changes

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 18-May-2010

State Rep. Jason Nelson, principal sponsor of House Bill 3393, a scholarship program for children with special needs, told CapitolBeatOK late Tuesday the legislation has been improved and “strengthened” after deliberations with state Education Department officials.

Nelson predicted the bill will emerge from conference this week. He said he was “very optimistic” the proposal would gain strong support on the House floor, then go to the Senate and ultimately to Governor Brad Henry.

Nelson held technical consultations with officials from the state Department of Education this week, to assure it addressed all “reasonable concerns” raised during previous deliberations. As a result, under the law state education officials would calculate the value of special needs scholarships based on weighted formula for special education.

Nelson also said local school districts (the “resident” districts of special needs scholarship recipients) will retain a 5% administrative fee of the scholarship value.

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Nelson said the 5% fee “was my idea.”  He disclosed the measure incorporates a handful of other technical changes to assure broad support and legal adequacy.

In related news, Andrea R. Kunkel of the Tulsa law firm Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold
 circulated a memorandum this week to public school district officials that claimed “the scholarship system will impose significant responsibilities and unreimbursed costs on public schools,” an assertion Nelson and other supporters have persistently rebuffed.

Kunkel encouraged recipients to “explain – as specifically as you can – the negative effect this will have on your district. You could use an example illustrating the impact that 1, 5, 10 or whatever number of children with disabilities leaving would have, with the resulting continuing financial responsibility to run your special ed programs while funding scholarships for students you can no longer count for the purpose of obtaining state or federal $ [dollars].”

Kunkel’s firm has Oklahoma City offices in the state School Boards Association near the state Capitol. The firm handles litigation and other legal work for hundreds of public school districts. In her critique, Kunkel said H.B. 3393 “has a lot of momentum.”

Supporters of H.B. 3393 include parents from Trinity School in Oklahoma City and Town & Country School in Tulsa, and numerous advocates for the disabled. Rep. Nelson of Oklahoma City has said “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.” 

The measure gained strength after a recent state Capitol press conference, when a wide cross section of support was announced. State Rep. Anastasia Pittman, an Oklahoma City Democrat, was passionate, telling reporters, “Rep. Nelson and I started on this journey together, and we’re going to end it together.” she declared her support in February.

Also announcing support at the May 5 press conference were Ron Brown, a retired public school administrator, and Emily Deal of Oklahoma City. Deal, a mother of three, including a special needs child, confessed she is not accustomed to press conferences.

Deal praised the education her son has received in a private setting: “My son went from being non-verbal to being able to progress in school and education.” One reporter asked her, “What were your thoughts when you heard about this bill?” She answered, “I was ecstatic. It could provide me with a level of independence to provide adequately for my own children.”

A prior Conference Committee Report reflected strong support in both Houses and in both parties. Conferees agreeing to send the legislation, as amended, back to the two chambers for final passage were Nelson and Republican Reps. Pam Peterson of Tulsa, Sally Kern of Oklahoma City and Ron Peters of Tulsa, joined by Democrats Pittman, Wade Rousselot of Wagoner, and Jabar Shumate of Tulsa. Nelson said he has no reason to believe any House conferee will “bail” on the final legislation.

Joining Senate sponsor Patrick Anderson in support of the bill were Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa, John Ford of Bartlesville and David Myers of Ponca City, as well as Democratic Sen. Connie Johnson of Oklahoma City. Although Republican Senator Mike Johnson of Kingfisher did not sign the report, Nelson told CapitolBeatOK that was due to the Appropriations chairman’s “total overload” with budget decisions.

Sen. Sean Burrage did not sign the report, but Rep. Nelson described his exchanges with the Claremore Democrat as “entirely cordial and focused on substantive concerns.”

Nelson told reporters two weeks ago a decision had been made to separate a DHS program for the disabled from H.B. 3393 into legislation carried by Kris Steele, Republican leader-designate: “We took the DHS program out, in part to avoid the single subject rule that the courts have been applying.”

An earlier version of the bill passed the state Senate in April and appears to retain strong support. The original House version prevailed 78-19.

On Tuesday (May 18), the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs circulated cross tabulations of an opinion survey showing significant support for the special needs scholarship concept.

OCPA said that “Likely Oklahoma voters favor school choice for special-needs kids by a margin of 55 percent to 39 percent.

A scientific telephone survey of 1,000 likely voters registered in Oklahoma was conducted February 25 through March 8, 2010 by SoonerPoll, the same firm that conducts the ‘Oklahoma Poll’ for The Tulsa World. The poll, commissioned by OCPA, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Majority support was found among all categories of the population, OCPA reported. Data points were summarized as follows:

“A proposal has been made to allow special-needs students currently in public schools to enroll in private schools chosen by parents with government helping to pay the tuition. Would you support or oppose this proposal?”

•                Strongly support … 26.8 %

•                Somewhat support … 27.9 %

•                Somewhat oppose … 18.8 %

•                Strongly oppose … 20.5 %

•                Don’t Know/Refused … 6.0 %

In addition to overall support (55 percent support to 39 percent oppose), the idea polled well in every subcategory.

•                Republican … 54 to 39

•                Democrat … 55 to 40

•                Independent … 57 to 39

•                Men … 54 to 40

•                Women … 55 to 38

•                White … 54 to 40

•                Black … 68 to 26

•                Native American … 49 to 38

•                1st Cong. Dist. … 57 to 38

•                2nd Cong. Dist. … 54 to 42

•                3rd Cong. Dist. … 58 to 35

•                4th Cong. Dist. … 54 to 41

•                5th Cong. Dist. … 51 to 41

•                Evangelical Christian … 54 to 40

•                Very Liberal … 50 to 46

•                Somewhat Liberal … 57 to 40

•                Moderate … 59 to 35

•                Somewhat Conservative … 56 to 39

•                Very Conservative … 49 to 43