Monday, February 15, 2010

Special Needs Scholarship Bill Gains Committee Approval

OKLAHOMA CITY – Legislation providing scholarships and increased educational opportunities for school children with special needs was approved by the House Human Services Committee today.

“Children with special needs have unique challenges that are not always properly addressed in their assigned local school. I believe the state should give those families the opportunity to attend the school that provides the best learning environment for their children,” said Nelson, R-Oklahoma City.

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 which 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.

The bill was amended in committee to allow special-needs scholarships to be used at either a private or public school.

“Every part of this bill is designed to give individuals with developmental disabilities and their families new and better choices in education and services within the existing budget,” Nelson said. “From my conversations with families interested in this proposal, I know that being able to use the scholarships at public or private schools is essential to provide the greatest set of options to parents seeking the best and most appropriate learning environment for their child.”

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.

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.

“This legislation will help all families of school-age children with special needs without a huge financial impact,” Nelson said. “The bill is both compassionate and fiscally conservative.

House Bill 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 House Bill 3393, families will be provided a monthly budget and allowed to directly hire care staff at lower – but still market-based – rates. Families can also use the program to get much needed respite care. Nelson said.

House Bill 3393 now proceeds to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
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