By Patrick B. McGuigan | Oklahoma Watchdog
OKLAHOMA CITY – The architect of Oklahoma’s historic Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program benefiting special needs children is sponsoring House Bill 3398, to create an Education Savings Account plan modeled on the choice program in Arizona.
A CHOICE ENCOUNTER: At the podium, Ashley Peters of Oklahoma City addresses speaks in favor of House Bill 3398, legislation to create a new school choice program modeled on Arizona’s Education Savings Accounts.
State Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, is lead sponsor of the bill, with state Rep. Tom Newell, R-Seminole, as co-sponsor.
“If you are a parent who has the means to pay for education alternatives, you have true freedom over how your child is educated,” Newell said. “If you have a lower income, your options are more limited. This legislation is about expanding those options for low-income families.”
“This would allow children and families to access tutoring, private school, therapies that are effective, building savings for college. The idea is to help families who really need help,” Nelson told Oklahoma Watchdog.
State educators say children living in poverty present the most significant challenges in public schools. Under H.B. 3398, students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches under federal guidelines could receive up to 90 percent of funding that would have supported their education in a public school. For those with family income up to 150 percent of the reduced lunch formula could receive 60 percent of the resources.
“In my work on education and human services issues I approach every problem by asking what would I want for my children or my family in the same circumstances,” said Nelson, who led the fight for the Henry Scholarship program benefiting handicapped children.
Parents in the ESA program would receive debit cards, the use of which would be limited to a state-approved list of institutions or vendors.
Among those supporting the Nelson-Newell legislation are Susan Agel, president of Positive Tomorrows School, Lauren Marshall of Public School Options‘ national board of directors, Superintendent Cris Carter of the Oklahoma City Archdiocesan Catholic Schools, and Executive Director Pam Newby of Special Care, an organization working with children facing respiratory issues, learning disabilities, and autism.
Several of them addressed a recent news conference unveiling H.B. 3398, and spoke with Oklahoma Watchdog.
Agel’s school, formerly a public school, is a private institution concentrating on educating homeless children. Marshall advocates for expanded use of online education and tutors for children who need help, regardless of public, private or home-school setting.
Carter said Catholic schools “have historically been an option for the poor or immigrants.” The recently opened Good Shepherd School in Oklahoma City focuses on special-needs children, including those with Autism.
Newby said she is hopeful expanded choice would enable all the represented schools and programs to do a better job meeting the unique needs of children.
“Education should not be one-size-fits-all,” she said.
The Henry Scholarship program for special needs children is under legal challenge in a case pending before the Oklahoma State Supreme Court.
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