Henry Scholarships for special needs students strengthened in new law
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Published: 06-Jun-2011

A new state law is designed to ensure that children with special needs receive scholarships in a prompt manner. Last week, Governor Mary Fallin signed into law House Bill 1744, which made revisions to the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act.

The Henry scholarships, passed in 2010, are among the most significant school choice measures enacted in Oklahoma history. 

Two Republicans, state Rep. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City and Sen. Patrick Anderson of Enid, led the charge for the original bill, and shepherded this year’s revisions through the process. Among other things, the law was changed so school districts will no longer administer the program. Instead, the Department of Education will run it henceforward.

“Last year, several school districts failed to provide scholarships to eligible special needs students, flagrantly violating the law,” said Nelson. “Thanks to the modifications in this bill, the State Department of Education will administer the program rather than local school districts. This will provide consistency and certainty for students and parents who choose to participate in the program.”

Last year, lawmakers voted allow a student with a disability (such as those with Down syndrome or Autism) who has an individualized education program (IEP) to receive state-funded scholarships to attend a private school. The scholarships come from the amount of money already designated for the education of those children.

After the program went into effect last August, several Tulsa-area schools voted to defy the law, leading lawmakers to adjust the program this year.

The Department of Education will have the authority to reduce state aid to school districts that have failed to comply with provisions of the program since it went into effect nine months ago this week. This will allow the Department of Education to pay scholarships for the current school year if it is determined that a local district has failed to follow the law.

“I’ve been stunned by the contempt some school districts have shown toward the law and these children,” Nelson said. “I’m told by parents that some local districts, in addition to ignoring the new law, are attempting to ignore existing transfer laws in order to deny scholarships to eligible students and have resorted to telling parents that the scholarships are taxable, hoping that will keep them from participating in the program.

“House Bill 1744 will ensure rogue officials don’t continue to cause problems for these students and their parents.”

Earlier this year State Superintendent Janet Barresi sent a letter to the superintendent of Union Public Schools informing her that a new transfer policy passed by the school board was in conflict with existing student transfer laws.

There is a pending request for an opinion from Attorney General Scott Pruitt to determine if scholarships are taxable as income. However, opinions from other attorneys state that the scholarships are not taxable including one from an attorney with a law firm that represents several school districts.

House Bill 1744 clarifies that parents can use the scholarships to pay private schools for assessment fees, services and therapies to address the needs of the student. Upon acceptance of the scholarship, parents assume full financial responsibility for the education of the student and transportation to and from the private school.

The measure instructs the Department of Education to establish a toll-free number and website where parents can get information and assistance.

According to the State Department of Education, 52 students from 18 school districts are currently using the scholarship to attend a private school of their choice.

The legislation also creates a Special Education Statewide Cooperative Task Force to study ways to improve special education and related services.

House Bill 1744 easily passed both chambers of the Legislature, receiving bipartisan support.

The bill passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives 64-25 and passed the State Senate 36-9.

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