Friday, January 17, 2014

Lawmakers Unveil Education Savings Account Act

OKLAHOMA CITY – Legislation that would provide education options to families across Oklahoma was unveiled today at a press conference at the Oklahoma State Capitol.

Under House Bill 3398, by state Reps. Jason Nelson and Tom Newell, low-income public school students would be able to receive a portion of the state aid dedicated to their education and use it to expand their education options.

“This is an exciting and timely proposal that will help address one of our state’s most pressing and challenging problems – the effects of poverty on our families,” said Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. “Two thirds of the births of children in our state are paid for by Medicaid. More than 60 percent of the public school students in our state are eligible for free or reduced price lunches. Educators I’ve talked to say that students living in poverty present the greatest challenge in our education system. This bill would begin to help these children and help schools with one of their greatest challenges.”

“If you are a parent who has the means to pay for education alternatives, you have true freedom over how your child is educated,” said Newell, R-Seminole. “If you have a lower income, your options are more limited. This legislation is about expanding those options for low-income families.”

Under the legislation, students eligible for free or reduced price lunch under federal guidelines would be eligible to receive 90 percent of the funding they would have generated at their resident public school through the school funding formula. Students in families whose household income is up to 1.5 times the threshold for free or reduced price lunch will be eligible to receive 60 percent of the amount they would have generated through the formula. Students in families whose household income is between of 1.5 times to 2 times the threshold will be eligible to receive 30 percent of what would have been generated through the formula.

The education savings account money could be used for tutoring, virtual school, higher education courses and private schools, Nelson said. 

“There is not a private school in every community,” Nelson said. “But there are alternative options to be found in every community.”

The president of a non-profit Oklahoma City school for impoverished and homeless children applauded the legislation.

Susan Agel, president of Positive Tomorrows, said the legislation could provide some funding for her students. Positive Tomorrows serves children who are homeless or in really difficult living situations.

“The Oklahoma City public school district estimates that there are about 2,000 homeless children in that school district,” Agel said. “There are a number of them that are really living in some difficult situations. Those are the children that we can do the most for. So far this year, we’ve turned away about 50 kids. We’ve done this because we have a lack of space in our building and because of staffing considerations.

“Every child that we take relieves some pressure on the burdened public school system who has to be all things to all children. We can take children who need some special care and we can take care of those kids and in the end we can save everybody a lot of money.”

Dr. Cris Carter, the superintendent of Oklahoma City Catholic Schools, said the Catholic Church has historically been an option for immigrants and the poor.

“We believe we have much to offer families who desire not only strong academics, but also a community rooted in a message of love and hope,” Carter said. “Representative Nelson’s previous legislation for special needs students has already begun to bear fruit. I have witnessed its impact most significantly at Good Shepherd Catholic School at Mercy, our school for children with autism.”

Lauren Marshall, member of the National Board on Public School Options and Tulsa resident, said parents need options.

“There are not enough school options right now for parents,” Marshall said. “This legislation will expand those options and we are grateful for Representative Nelson’s work on behalf of parents.”

Pam Newby, executive director of Special Care, also spoke in support of the legislation. 

“This bill is incredibly important to our families,” Newby said. “Most of our families are single parents with children who have respiratory issues, or learning disabilities, or autism. They desperately need an education plan that is not one-size-fits-all. Education should not be one-size-fits-all.”

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Legislation Would Empower Parents in Crisis

OKLAHOMA CITY – Legislation unveiled today would empower parents who are in crisis to find a home for their children without the involvement of the Department of Human Services, according to the bill’s author.

House Bill 2536, by state Rep. Jason Nelson, would create a legal power of attorney for parents to use when placing their children with a host family. The legislation also modifies existing child placing licensure laws to ensure that the laws don’t frustrate or prohibit the work of private groups and host families who are caring for the child of a parent in crisis.

“Many people may see this as a radical concept and it is unfortunate that we live in a day when such a common-sense approach comes across as radical,” said Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. “The assumptions that underpin this approach are that parents love their children and are capable of making major decisions on behalf of their children even in the midst of a family crisis.”

Even as reforms and additional resources are put in place at DHS the number of children coming into state custody continues at an alarming and unsustainable pace, Nelson said.

In 2009, a research report that examined Oklahoma’s foster care system recommended that the state seek partnerships with the faith community in meeting the need for foster homes. The Count Me In 4 Kids collaborative is ready to take this a step further by working with the faith community to help families in crisis get back on their feet and avoid the circumstances that lead to DHS involvement.

“Many of us from the Count Me In 4 Kids collaborative are excited to be here today as our state moves forward in helping many more compassionate and caring Oklahomans step up to love and nurture some of our most vulnerable children,” Lynn Institute President Karen Waddell said. “We are committed to bringing the Safe Families model to Oklahoma out of our shared belief that every child deserves to have a safe place to call home and celebrate this next important step.

“Over the past year, it’s been amazing to watch over 50 organizations set aside their individual agendas, instead working collaboratively to find a way to reduce the number of children in foster care.  We are on mission together and over the coming months we’ll be creating even more ways for Oklahomans to stand up and say, count me in for our state’s children. The answer to the problem lies in all of us working together.”

Nelson said he is confident in the ability of Count Me In 4 Kids to help with child welfare challenges in Oklahoma.

“I have confidence in this effort because of the dedicated and seasoned coalition, Count Me In 4 Kids, that is taking on this challenge,” Nelson said. “And I’ve heard from many churches and church leaders that they want to help meet the needs of vulnerable families. This effort brings a proven approach to our state that facilitates this partnership with private nonprofits and the faith community. That’s why I’m excited to run House Bill 2536 that opens the door in our state to this effort.”

DHS Director Ed Lake said he supports the legislation.

“We are delighted that these efforts are being made to prepare the way for Safe Families to come to Oklahoma,” Lake said. “This has proven to be an effective model in 25 other states offering options to people in crisis before the state has to become involved.  We appreciate all efforts that help vulnerable Oklahoma families work through challenges and ensure children are safe and well cared for in the process.  Government agencies cannot do this work alone which is why we welcome the support of communities, faith groups, and organizations whose goals are to better the lives of the children in this state.” 

For more information on Count Me In 4 Kids and ultimately Safe Families, visit

Ownbey, Nelson Bill Would Aid Foster Care Parents

OKLAHOMA CITY – Helping foster parents will help children in Oklahoma, said state Rep. Pat Ownbey today about a new bill to create a foster parent mediation program.

“After conducting a study where we talked to foster parents about their experience in the child welfare system, it became clear that foster parents need a third party to help them resolve conflicts that occasionally arise between child welfare workers and foster parents,” said Ownbey, R-Ardmore. “DHS on the whole does an excellent job of partnering with foster parents, but the current system provides little recourse for foster parents when a conflict does arise, because there is not a mediator to help resolve conflicts. My proposal is to designate a third party to mediate these conflicts.”

House Bill 2588 would create procedures for mediating and addressing grievances by foster care parents that would be overseen by the Oklahoma Commission of Children and Youth Office of Juvenile System Oversight.

The legislation would give foster parents the right “without fear or reprisal” to present grievances with respect to providing foster care services.

“Foster care parents came to us with a real problem that will improve their ability to help children and encourage more foster care parents to join the child welfare system,” Ownbey said.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Nelson fundraiser set January 16 in OKC

It seems like the last campaign just ended but the next election is less than ten months away and I already have a serious general election opponent who has begun raising money and organizing. My opponent is already working hard and will be well-funded.

I am asking everyone who plans to contribute to my campaign to please join me and Speaker T.W. Shannon this Thursday.  I must raise funds now to be ready to effectively campaign this year. By contributing what you can, you help me demonstrate the strength of our campaign not just in the money raised but in the number of people supporting my efforts.

If you are not able to contribute at the levels listed on the invitation below, please contribute what you can. I’m grateful for any amount and will put your resources to good use as the campaign heats up.

If you are unable to attend but would like to help financially you can mail your contribution to 4117 NW. 58th St., Oklahoma City, OK 73112. Click here to download a contributor statement to complete and return with your support.

The fundraiser is this Thursday, January 16 from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m.

At the home of Gerald and Jane Jayroe Gamble
8200 Waverly Avenue
Oklahoma City

For more information or to RSVP email or call 405-641-3255.

Serving as a member of the State House of Representatives has been a true honor for me and for my family. Serving my constituents is a rewarding experience I cherish and look forward to each day. Representing nearly 40,000 Oklahomans in the legislature has been a humbling responsibility I take very seriously. It has made me a better person, and I hope it has made Oklahoma a better place to live. It may sound cliché, but I can’t think of a better way to say it.

Since my election in 2008, I have tried to serve in such a way that while some may disagree with me, they know I work hard and always do what I think is right — not what is politically expedient.

I have spent much of the past five years tackling some of the most persistent and complex challenges in state government. My work on these issues has turned what I expected to be a part-time job into one that is more than full-time. These are not the sort of issues that are easily addressed or that encourage political contributions. That is why I am so grateful for the strong support of so many.

I have focused on championing government reforms that improve our education system, reorganizing our state’s Department of Human Services to help ensure Oklahoma’s children are protected and that the state is not subject to future expensive federal class action lawsuits, and giving parents of special needs children the ability to educate their children as they see fit. I am committed to continue working hard on behalf of Oklahoma’s families.

I am also proud of our efforts to reform the workers’ compensation and tort systems and to modernize our government, making it more transparent and responsive to the public.

I have supported legislation lowering the tax burden on Oklahoma families and businesses. Oklahoma’s unemployment is well below the national average and our Rainy Day Fund is full! Washington could learn a lesson or two from our state.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Parental choice in education a topic in OEA questionnaire

State Superintendent Janet Barresi's campaign today posted her responses to an Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) candidate questionnaire. Barresi answered questions on several areas of education policy, including school choice.

The OEA is the state's largest teachers' union and opposed Barresi in the 2010 state superintendent’s race. The OEA also consistently opposes legislative efforts to provide greater educational options to parents.

Barresi answered a very revealing question about publicly funded educational choice programs:

Q. What are your feelings about using public money to support private schools through voucher programs, tax credits, and other mechanisms?
A. My goal is to make sure our public schools are the first choice of every Oklahoma parent. Until that day, I want to give parents as many choices as possible. I have worked to increase funding for the Lindsay Nicole Henry Scholarships so that parents of those with learning challenges have better options for their students to have the same success as everyone else. There is still more we can do. Every child, every parent should have the opportunity to choose the school that best fits their specific needs, and no child should be confined to a failing school. I won’t rest until that’s a reality.

The premise of the OEA's question is absurd and a clear example of misplaced focus. The union sees programs like the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships Act as existing to support private schools over public schools. They see education in terms of institutional schools -- not individual students.

My two children attend public schools. We do so not out of a sense of obligation to support the public institutions and provide employment for union members who believe they know better than my wife and I do what is best for our children.

Children are more than mere funding units for educational institutions. Common sense dictates that the institutions exist for the benefit of schoolchildren. The children do not exist for the benefit of the system of public schools.

Following the logic of the OEA's question, it must hold that the per pupil revenue generated by students attending public school is for the purpose of supporting that school, regardless of the service it provides to students.

The OEA’s focus is not on providing children with educational services, but with protecting their turf. The union bosses concern themselves with imagined harm to their dues-paying members while ignoring the very real harm of denying help to students who need a different educational environment.

The membership concerns of the teachers' union should not take priority over the sacred right and duty of parents to direct the education of their children.

As the author of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act, I’m grateful to Supt. Barresi for her steadfast support of this important, student-centered education program.

Barresi, along with the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education, are defendants in a new lawsuit filed by educators challenging the constitutionality of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program. I'm working with Barresi and Attorney General Scott Pruitt to defend this law against those who believe that the children exist to support the system and dues paying union members.

Call me naïve, but I think education should be focused on students.

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