Thursday, May 6, 2010

Oklahoma Could Become National Leader in Special Needs Education

OKLAHOMA CITY (May 5, 2010) – A proposed scholarship program for special needs students would easily withstand a federal constitutional challenge and could make Oklahoma a national leader, according to a respected legal expert and a former school superintendent whose child has multiple disabilities.

"Oklahoma would not be breaking new ground with this law but would still be one of the more advanced states when it comes to serving children with special needs," said Richard "Dick" Komer, senior attorney at the Virginia-based Institute for Justice. "There are already five other states with similar scholarship programs that so clearly constitutional that no one has even tried to challenge them under the federal constitution."

House Bill 3393, by state Rep. Jason 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 public or private school 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 spent on the student.

Other states with similar laws include Florida, Georgia, Utah, Ohio and Arizona, Komer said. He noted the Florida program has been in place since 1999 and now serves approximately 20,000 students with special needs.

"The parents are just wildly happy with the Florida program, and school administrators like it as well," Komer said. "Even teachers’ union members like the program because they know special needs students are able to obtain a better quality education. In addition, it makes life simpler for administrators."

House Bill 3393 closely mirrors the Florida and Georgia laws.

Ron Brown, a former school superintendent whose daughter has autism and other challenges, said the legislation would be enormously beneficial to many families across Oklahoma.

"To get my daughter in a school district that could provide the services she needed, we had to sell our house and move," Brown said. "The parents of special-needs children are faced with these decisions every day. If this bill had been law, that action would not have been necessary."

Prior to moving to Ada, several small district pooled resources to form a co-op to help Brown’s daughter and similar students. However, the co-op was eventually disbanded.

"Why shouldn’t we do something specifically for the people who have been left behind?" Brown asked. "I believe this scholarship bill will level the playing field for special-needs kids and I am all for it."

During his career, Brown served as superintendent at the Taloga, Roff and McLish school districts. Under House Bill 3393, he noted parents of special-needs students would pay for the child’s transportation into the receiving district, so the transportation cost would create no adverse financial impact on the school.

Komer has litigated school choice cases in both federal and state courts. Prior to his work at the Institute, Komer worked as a career civil rights lawyer for the federal government, working at the Departments of Education and Justice, as well as at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He ended his government employment as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education.

Komer said the U.S. Supreme Court has already upheld the constitutionality of using state money for special education programs in private schools.

House Bill 3393 is currently in conference committee, but is expected to be voted out in the next week. It will then proceed to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and state Senate for final action before heading to the governor.

"From my conversations with the families of special needs students, it is clear that being able to use these scholarships is essential to provide the greatest set of options to parents seeking the best and most appropriate learning environment for their child," said Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. "This legislation holds out hope for many families that desperately need it today."

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