Steele, Shumate decry school maneuvers denying access to special-needs students

CapitolBeatOK Staff Report

Published: 06-Oct-2010

House Speaker-designate Kris Steele today (Wednesday, October 6) said the Jenks and Broken Arrow school systems should comply with a state law granting scholarships to special needs students. Also decrying maneuvers to prevent implementation of the new law was a leading House Democrat.

The school boards at both schools voted this week to refuse implementation of a new Oklahoma law allowing students with disabilities such at autism or Down’s syndrome, to receive scholarships and transfer to schools that specialize in aiding those populations.

“It’s concerning for these schools to break the law at the expense of children with special needs, and it’s disturbing for them to ignore the law over a philosophical difference of opinion,” said Steele, R-Shawnee. “If these districts have concerns, they should communicate those issues with the Legislature to bring about positive solutions that would benefit students with special needs.

“We can no more allow schools to violate the law because officials object to it than we can allow drivers to ignore the speed limit in a school zone if it ‘inconveniences’ them,” Steele said.

House Bill 3393, by state Rep. Jason Nelson, created the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act.

In a separate statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, state Rep. Jabar Shumate, a Tulsa Democrat, also criticized the decision of the two districts to refuse implementation of the new Henry Scholarships.

Shumate, a co-author of the Henry Schlarships, also known as “Lindsey’s Law,” said, “Unfortunately, this is not the first time people have relied on obscure legal arguments to deny children access to a quality education. A few years ago, we saw this same law firm unsuccessfully challenge the state’s charter school law.”

Shumate added, “I have always believed that providing quality educational options for all kids is the civil rights issue of the 21st Century. As history has taught us, when adults fight, kids suffer. Today, as in the past, our focus should be on the children, not the wants of school officials and their attorneys.”

State Rep. Anastasia Pittman, an Oklahoma City Democrat, also co-sponsored the measure. She and Shumate are members of the Legislative Black Caucus, of which Rep. Shumate is chairman.

The Oklahoma program is similar to laws in Florida and Georgia that have easily withstood legal challenges. The Florida program has been in place since 1999 and now serves approximately 20,000 students with special needs. The scholarship program was designed not to require new spending, but to redirect existing state funds that are currently spent on the student.

School officials claimed the transfers authorized by the scholarship program would somehow harm their financial standing, but only seven students have applied for the scholarships at Jenks and eight at Broken Arrow, according to the Tulsa World. Both schools are among the largest in the state.

“Our focus should be on helping children with special needs,” Steele said. “It’s clear the parents of these children believe a specialized learning environment will provide greater benefit for their kids.”