See Student Life for more
- Spanish - Site Map - Contact
Union Student Safety HelpLine
Originally posted November 6, 2011
Parents say vouchers helping special needs kids
by: KIM ARCHER Tulsa World Staff Writer
(Reprinted with Permission. This is not an endorsement.)
Amid public controversy over the use of taxpayer dollars to send special-needs students to private schools, some Oklahoma parents who have taken advantage of the scholarships feel their voices haven't been heard.
The most important focus, they say, has been lost in the conversation.
"It's about the kids," said parent Beth Serafin of Broken Arrow, whose 11-year-old daughter with dyslexia is in a private religious school with the help of a state-funded scholarship.
Since the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act took effect just over a year ago, several Tulsa-area school districts have taken issue with the law because they say it violates the Oklahoma Constitution by using state funds for private, sectarian purposes.
The issue has led to a war of words in the political arena and legal wrangling in the federal and state court systems.
Public school administrators are missing the point, said Robin Sweet, whose son has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Asperger's syndrome and now attends Town and Country School.
The law was written to address the lack of resources public schools have for children with special needs, she said.
"In my opinion, the education system in the state of Oklahoma finally got something right and helped my son in a way that the education system failed him," Sweet said.
But in this tough economic environment, public school administrators say state lawmakers ought to be providing more resources and financial support to improve special education in public schools, rather than transferring state funds to private, sectarian institutions.
"This is not about special education. This is about vouchers," said Union Superintendent Cathy Burden.
Serafin said what particularly angered parents of special-needs children was the decision last year by several Tulsa-area school boards not to process the scholarships because of the constitutionality issue.
Soon after, every district reversed course after the state attorney general threatened to sue the school boards.
"I think (the constitutionality issue) is being thrown out there (as a fear tactic). I think public schools are terrified that we're moving toward vouchers," Serafin said.
Last week, a group of parents dropped a federal lawsuit it had filed against Broken Arrow, Jenks, Tulsa and Union school districts in April alleging the districts didn't pay the scholarships.
Serafin originally was part of that lawsuit but pulled out once she received her child's scholarship from Broken Arrow Public Schools.
Multiple efforts to speak with parents currently involved in either the federal or state lawsuit were unsuccessful.
Serafin's daughter had difficulty reading and absorbing content. Her individualized educational program called for teachers to read instructions aloud to her.
But in the hour Allison spent each day with a special education teacher, she was overshadowed by a classroom of boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The teacher had to spend so much time wrangling the boys that Allison still wasn't getting what she needed, Serafin said.
"Her self-esteem was murdered. Allison couldn't get anything done and couldn't even think in the class," Serafin said. Teachers and administrators tried to work with Serafin, but ultimately it wasn't enough.
"It may not be the public school system's fault, but it's the reality of what it is," Serafin said. "If you have a child who cannot move past that and cannot thrive in that system, why would we not take the option the law has offered and put them where they can be successful?"
Serafin's daughter is an example of what public school educators fear - that students who are less costly to educate will go to private schools, leaving the most challenging and expensive students to the public school system.
"What we're seeing in Florida in some of these vouchers for special education is that private schools cherry-pick," said Donna Campo, superintendent of Liberty Public Schools. "They take the speech pathology kids and the kids it doesn't cost as much to serve, yet they get the tuition voucher and end up making money on those kids."
But Anji Ballew of Broken Arrow questions whether public schools are really losing money as a result of the Henry law.
She noted the law allows school districts to receive money for students for two years after they leave the district.
Her 11-year-old daughter has epilepsy and is classified as having a medical condition, which draws one of the highest scholarship amounts. She placed her daughter at Immanuel Lutheran on a Henry scholarship, which for her is around $5,000.
"We just want the funding that the school is being paid for my child to provide the services to follow my child," Ballew said.
Most parents of special-needs children credit smaller class sizes as the key to their children's success in the private schools.
Serafin said she chose Immanuel because of class size - just 15 students compared with 39 in her daughter's regular third-grade class - and not because it was private or Christian.
"Since she has moved schools, her reading level is up two grades," she said. "She's a different child. I got my kid back. It's nice."
Tulsan Shanon Clingan said her fifth-grade son has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is very reactive to the environment and outer stimulus.
"He's a very smart child, but he didn't respond well to testing," she said.
Although he received speech therapy and other services in his public school, it wasn't enough, she said.
"We would spend two to four hours a night going over the things he did in class that day," Clingan said. "It just didn't work for him. We tried for five years. Without this, we could not afford to send him to a specialty school."
He is now at Town and Country on a Henry scholarship. The school specializes in educating students with learning disabilities, attention disorders and Asperger's syndrome. Class ratios are 8-to-1 or 10-to-1 depending on the grade, she said.
Tuition ranges from $9,660 to $10,780, according to the school website. Clingan pays around half the tuition and said she doesn't mind working extra to pay for it.
She said her son no longer spends hours on homework and is less stressed. He is learning social skills and no longer has to deal with bullying.
"To us, this has been a godsend," Clingan said.
June 2010: Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act is signed into law.
Fall 2010: Broken Arrow, Jenks, Union, Tulsa and Liberty school boards vote not to process the scholarships.
Jan. 18, 2011: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt threatens legal action against those school districts and individual board members if they fail to comply with the law within the week.
Jan. 24: Union, Jenks, Broken Arrow and Liberty school districts announce that they will sue Pruitt over the constitutionality of the law. They also vote to process scholarships under the law until a decision on its constitutionality is made.
April 25: Twenty parents sue Broken Arrow, Jenks, Union and Tulsa school districts, alleging that their special-needs children were denied private school scholarships in 2010-11. Liberty Public Schools is not named in the lawsuit.
May: The state Legislature passes HB 1744, which transfers responsibility for administering the scholarship program from the districts to the Oklahoma State Department of Education. It took effect Aug. 26.
July: In light of that legislation, U.S. Chief District Judge Claire Eagan grants the parents a stay so they can pursue "administrative remedies" through the state Education Department. Eagan also invites the school districts to file their constitutionality challenge in state court, saying it would be a "better means of resolving the controversy between the parties."
Aug. 26: Pruitt asks the state Auditor's Office to investigate whether the Broken Arrow, Jenks, Liberty, Owasso, Tulsa and Union school districts complied with the law in 2010-11.
Sept. 2: Jenks and Union school districts file a countersuit in state court to challenge the constitutionality of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act on behalf of all school districts. Their suit names the parents of three students in each district who participated in the federal lawsuit against the schools.
Nov. 2: Parents drop federal lawsuit alleging Broken Arrow, Jenks, Union and Tulsa school districts denied private school scholarships for their special-needs children last year.
School voucher critics cite lack of accountability
by: KIM ARCHER Tulsa World Staff Writer
(Reprinted with Permission. This is not an endorsement.)
Public schools must account for every dime of state and federal funding they spend to educate students.
But what about public funds that are being channeled to private schools under the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act?
That question has been raised amid public debate over the constitutionality of the year-old law that allows public school funding to pay private school tuition for special-needs students.
Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, co-sponsor of the law, says private schools are accountable only to parents.
The whole point of school choice, he said, is giving parents control over their child's education.
"You're on your own now," Nelson said. "You're making the decision. So if you're not happy, go to another school."
But public schools are constrained by requirements to follow the law and account for all public funds.
It is a time-honored protection for the public taxpayer, a form of checks and balances, voucher opponents say.
"How can we be giving public money to schools that can discriminate based on race, religion, disability?" said Donna Campo, superintendent of Liberty Public Schools.
"They don't have to take a multihandicapped kid. If they can't serve them, they don't have to take them. Public schools do."
The debate is one sweeping the country as more states implement voucher programs.
"Not all public schools in Oklahoma are failing. In fact, most are succeeding," said Jennifer Hudspeth, a member of the Tulsa Area Parents Legislative Action Committee.
"And all can improve if permitted, that is if not handcuffed by an ever-increasing amount of unfunded mandates - mandates not fully shared by charter or private schools."
She said legislators' time would better be spent focusing on successes in the state's public education system and building on those.
"There is no accountability for those with these scholarships. There's no guarantee that services for special education students will be provided," said Union Superintendent Cathy Burden.
Many parents don't understand they are giving up federal protections when they move their children to private schools, she said.
"If this stays on the books, those students will lose their protection for due process, for a free and appropriate public education, for periodic testing, for special programs and auxiliary services and all those things that have been required to make their education the same and give them the same opportunity as children in a regular environment," Burden said.
News Archive on issues related to HB 3393
Parents clainm vouchers are helping their kids - November 6, 2011
School voucher critics cite lack of credibility - November 6, 2011
Public funds used to send special-needs kids to private schools - October 23, 2011
Voucher law under scrutiny - October 23, 2011
Special-needs vouchers to top $700,000 - October 18, 2011
Union, Jenks repond to state criticism - September 29, 2011
Schools argue lawsuit claims 'untrue' - May 3, 2011
Parents of special needs students sue 4 districts - April 29, 2011
School daze - April 29, 2011
School boards to sue Attorney General - January 25, 2011
Union votes not comply with new law - October 12, 2010