War of the words intensifies as superintendents try to kill special needs scholarships

A rhetorical war of words has erupted among advocates and opponents of Oklahoma’s historic Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act.

Thursday, September 29, state Rep. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City said leaders of the Jenks and Union public school districts are likely to face rising criticism after their controversial decision to sue parents of special needs children.

Earlier this month, in a social media post, one state Education Department official called officials in the two districts “dirtbags” for efforts to kill the scholarship program; that comment has in turn provoked criticism from the state Democratic party chairman.

Nelson commented, “I’ve got news for them: Get used to it. Oklahoma citizens will no longer stand by while wealthy school bureaucrats abuse their power.

“I believe these districts continue to violate state law and know their actions are indefensible — which is likely the reason they did not include ‘suing parents’ on any school board agenda.

“I’ve not heard one person defend suing parents outside the administrators of Jenks and Union schools. I’ve visited with numerous people who shudder at the idea of a school district suing parents – especially in this case – and many of them used far more colorful language to express their opinion.”

Governing boards in the two districts had voted to sue Attorney General Scott Pruitt in an effort to shut down the scholarships, but that action was never taken. Instead, lawyers for the districts moved against parents of children seeking to access the program. Lawyers for the two districts want to kill the program, which took effect with bipartisan support in 2010.

Henry Scholarships allow students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) who have disabilities such as Down syndrome or Autism to receive state-funded scholarships to attend a private school parents believe can better serve their child. Scholarships are limited to money already designated for those children.

In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, Nelson said, “At the start of September, the amount spent on all students receiving these scholarships statewide was a combined total of $197,345 – far less than the combined salaries of the two superintendents at Jenks and Union.”  

Nelson concluded, “When you have school administrators obsessing over a month-old, offhand, one-word Twitter comment instead of working to provide each child a quality education, that suggests the school funds being wasted are those spent on administrators’ fat paychecks and not the pittance spent helping educate children with special needs.”

Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairman Wallace Collins, who last week criticized Commissioner of Labor Mark Costello for his description of some government employees as “feral hogs,” has issued a new broadside at Jennifer Carter, chief of staff for Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi.

Collins said, “It’s appalling that both Costello and Barresi continue to defend not just juvenile behavior, but the illegal abuse of non-profit entities to advance their agendas. It’s one thing to openly debate policy differences. It’s another to engage in name calling and illegal practice to advance your position."

Collins last week said he wanted a federal investigation of the 501 c 4 Costello formed called “Parity for Oklahoma.” He criticized Carter’s use of “dirtbags” in a “tweet” reacting to the Jenks/Union lawsuit. Collis said, “It’s morally wrong for those elected to be role models for our children to demean fellow members of their department. There is currently a legislative interim study on bullying. Perhaps there should be a study of state elected officials bullying those who don’t agree with their policies."

Senate Minority Leader Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City, in a release, also criticized Carter’s word usage, saying, "A policy disagreement is one thing, but name-calling via social media is immature and extremely unprofessional. Behavior like this is certainly not helpful, and reflects poorly on the state superintendent."

Meanwhile, Superintendent Barresi said, in a Tulsa World story printed today, “While Jennifer’s tweet was a poor choice of words, it is morally wrong for superintendents of school districts to sue parents who want nothing more than what’s best for their children.”

Barresi said Oklahomans are "concerned and shocked that any school district would vindictively target the parents of special needs children with a groundless lawsuit. These parents’ lives are stressful enough without having to deal with a vengeful lawsuit from two superintendents who make more than our governor."

The two superintendents suing the parents of special needs children, Jenks’ Kirby Lehman and Union’s Cathy Burden, asserted in a joint statement to The World the controversy is “not about special education students,” but rather the attempt to use children as “pawns” to implement “vouchers” in the state.

The pair predicted the Henry Scholarships will be struck down in the state courts.