Students in Broken Arrow, Jenks denied access to special-needs scholarship

CapitolBeatOK Staff Report

Published: 06-Oct-2010

The architect of a major special education reform law says two of the states’ highest-paid public-school superintendents and their boards are willfully ignoring the new law due to questionable legal advice, raising serious concerns about the treatment of special-needs students in those districts.

“It is a serious matter anytime a government entity thumbs their nose at the law. I think those with authority over any such agency must understand the gravity of this offense and the potential consequences, and any responsible legal counsel should encourage their client to strive to comply with the law,” said state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City.

The Tulsa World reported this week that Jenks and Broken Arrow Public Schools, two of the states’ largest school districts, are refusing to implement a new scholarship law designed to benefit students with disabilities.

The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act was created by House Bill 3393 during the 2010 legislative session. The scholarship program, named in honor of the deceased infant daughter of Gov. Brad Henry and his wife, Kim, had bipartisan sponsorship in the Legislature.

Under the new law, children with disabilities who have an individualized education program (IEP) qualify for a scholarship to attend any private school that meets the accreditation requirements of the State Board of Education. The law went into effect August 27.

Nelson has been contacted by several parents of special-needs students in the Tulsa area, and said the schools’ actions are reason for “serious concern” about the treatment of special-needs students in those districts.

“The fact that these schools will openly ignore state law justifies parents’ fears and concerns about poor treatment of children with disabilities in these districts,” Nelson said. “If these districts are willing to brazenly flaunt the law in this case, I can only imagine how bad it must be for the parents who are trying to get the district to follow federal law and case law during IEP meetings.”

Jenks and Broken Arrow officials have claimed the handful of scholarships would create a financial hardship. However, in the design of “Lindsey’s Law,” as the measure is also known, scholarship amounts will always be less than what the district originally received from the state.

Schools defying the new state law are also represented by the Rosenstein Fist Ringold law firm, which was involved in previous attempts to impede operation of Oklahoma’s charter school laws. After years of litigation in that matter, the firm and its clients lost.

The controversial firm has also been under scrutiny for its performance during the two-year process of investigative audits of the Broken Arrow public schools.

Late this summer, the firm’s lead attorney participated in stormy sessions during the process that was originally expected to lead to release of the audit. However, the audit was squashed by state officials and a criminal investigative audit began in September.

Nelson, commenting on the decisions to refuse implementation of the new law, said in a release sent to CapitolBeatOK, “Every attorney I have visited with about the legal tactics of these districts and their lawyers are surprised they have not requested an attorney general’s opinion or sought declaratory judgment by a court rather than stoop to irresponsible and destructive childishness,” Nelson said. “They evidently want to settle a political score by punishing these children and their parents.

“Sincere people can have disagreements over this new program. But it’s not up to individual school districts to pick and choose which laws they will follow. In the end, we need to worry about doing what’s right for special-needs children, and not about the whims of quarter-million-dollar superintendents or their overpaid, underperforming attorneys.”

NOTE: Video of state Reps. Jason Nelson (R-Oklahoma City) and Jabar Shumate (D-Tulsa) discussing the Jenks and Broken Arrow school districts decision to defy the new state law providing scholarships to special-needs students online: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.