Steele, Shumate decry school maneuvers denying access to special-needs students

Rep. Jabar ShumateHouse
Speaker-designate Kris Steele said the
Jenks and Broken Arrow school systems should comply with a state law
granting scholarships to special needs students. Also decrying maneuvers
to prevent implementation of the new law was a leading House Democrat.

The school boards at both schools voted this week to refuse implementation of a new Oklahoma law
allowing students with disabilities such at autism or Down’s syndrome,
to receive scholarships and transfer to schools that specialize in
aiding those populations.

“It’s concerning for these schools to break the law at the expense of
children with special needs, and it’s disturbing for them to ignore the
law over a philosophical difference of opinion,” said Steele, R-Shawnee.
“If these districts have concerns, they should communicate those issues
with the Legislature to bring about positive solutions that would
benefit students with special needs.

can no more allow schools to violate the law because officials object
to it than we can allow drivers to ignore the speed limit in a school
zone if it ‘inconveniences’ them,” Steele said.

Bill 3393, by state Rep. Jason Nelson, created the Lindsey Nicole Henry
Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act.

In a separate statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, state Rep. Jabar Shumate,
a Tulsa Democrat, also criticized the decision of the two districts to
refuse implementation of the new Henry Scholarships.

Shumate, a co-author of the Henry Schlarships, also known as “Lindsey’s
Law,” said, “Unfortunately, this is not the first time people have
relied on obscure legal arguments to deny children access to a quality
education. A few years ago, we saw this same law firm unsuccessfully
challenge the state’s charter school law.”

Shumate added, “I have always believed that providing quality
educational options for all kids is the civil rights issue of the 21st
Century. As history has taught us, when adults fight, kids suffer.
Today, as in the past, our focus should be on the children, not the
wants of school officials and their attorneys.”

Rep. Anastasia Pittman, an Oklahoma City Democrat, also co-sponsored
the measure. She and Shumate are members of the Legislative Black
Caucus, of which Rep. Shumate is chairman.

The Oklahoma program is similar to laws in Florida and Georgia that have
easily withstood legal challenges. The Florida program has been in
place since 1999 and now serves approximately 20,000 students with
special needs. The scholarship program was designed not to require new
spending, but to redirect existing state funds that are currently spent
on the student.

School officials claimed the transfers authorized by the scholarship
program would somehow harm their financial standing, but only seven
students have applied for the scholarships at Jenks and eight at Broken
Arrow, according to the Tulsa World. Both schools are among the largest
in the state.

“Our focus should be on helping children with special needs,” Steele
said. “It’s clear the parents of these children believe a specialized
learning environment will provide greater benefit for their kids.”