Education: New Special Education Law Creates Questions
Editor’s Note: After this article was written, Broken Arrow, Union, Bixby and Jenks, have indicated they will not honor applications for the scholarship at this time, and other districts, such as Tulsa Public Schools, may follow.
On a wall in the foyer of the Town & Country School Administrative Offices are pictures of each graduating class starting with the year 2000. Town & Country, Oklahoma’s only accredited, private school that serves students in grades 1-12 diagnosed with learning disabilities, attention disorders and asperger’s syndrome, added a high school program in 1995. In 2000 the school celebrated its first graduating class, which consisted of one boy, Drew Diez. Diez, grinning from ear to ear, stands proud in the Class of 2000 graduation picture. A plaque on the frame reads “Drew Diez, Class of 2000, In a Class by Himself.” Town & Country Head of School Mary Lawrence remembers Diez as a computer genius. “He started here in kindergarten and by the time he was in middle school he had a job repairing computers. After he graduated, he went on to Tulsa Community College.”
Last year 12 students graduated from Town & Country. Ten of those students have continued their education at Tulsa Tech, TCC or Oklahoma State University. Each one of their educational journeys has been unique. Some were Town & Country lifers, attending the school from first grade until graduation. Some were home schooled or attended public schools and switched to Town & Country in middle or high school.
“Families in Tulsa and surrounding areas have educational options for their student with special needs,” Lawrence said. “Tulsa Public, Jenks, Broken Arrow, to name a few, are all equipped to educate and serve children on the full spectrum of learning disabilities. Or, if a parent wants, they can explore a number of private school options for their child. Parents have choices here, they just have to decide which environment best suits their child and can they afford the private school tuition.”
With the signing of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program (House Bill 3393) by Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry in June, parents of children with disabilities who are currently attending public school may receive money for their child to attend a private school. The special needs scholarship program, named in honor of Gov. Henry’s first child who died in 1990 of spinal muscular atrophy, allows for a child who has an Individual Education Program (IEP) in a public school, to qualify for a scholarship to attend a private school that meets the accreditation requirements of the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
The money that would normally go to educate that child in a public school will follow that child to the private school. The actual money a parent of a child will receive toward tuition depends on the child’s age and disability. If the child’s tuition is less than the amount calculated through the bill’s formula, the scholarship will equal the lesser of the amounts.
Oklahoma joins Florida, Georgia, Utah, Arizona and Ohio to offer a special needs voucher program. There are approximately 96,000 eligible Oklahoma public school students who could take advantage of the program. Under the law, parents who already have their child in a private school won’t be able to benefit from the voucher program, only students who transfer from public to private schools are eligible.
Assistant State Superintendent, Special Education Services, Misty Kimbrough says currently 17 schools in Oklahoma have indicated they wish to participate in the scholarship program and also meet the requirements of the bill. Five of those schools are in Tulsa; two are in Broken Arrow.
Kimbrough says that between the time Governor Henry signed the bill and the effective date of the law (Aug. 27, 2010) she talked to approximately 100 parents that were interested in taking advantage of the new program. “However, at this time, the OK State Department of Education has only received eight official requests from public schools to calculate the maximum amount of the scholarship for parents,” she said.
Critics of the law say that it funnels tax dollars to religious and private schools, and question the constitutionality of the law. They say that the special education scholarship opens the door for vouchers in general, which will further impact funding public schools.
Town & Country currently consists of 135 students in grades 1-12. Families from as far away as Bartlesville and Okmulgee make the twice-a-day drive to the South Tulsa school. Lawrence says the school’s maximum is about 144 students. Since the bill went into effect on August 27, she receives phone calls daily to inquire about her school and she says a growing number of her families who have recently enrolled in Town & Country from a pubic school system are filling out the paperwork hoping to take advantage of the new law.
Lawrence says she is thrilled to have the special needs voucher passed to give parents an option to use private. “So many families do not have that option due to finances. But I want parents to be cautious in making that transfer decision. Parents need to realize we cannot offer many of the services the public school system can,” she said. “Therefore, our school is not for every special needs child.
“Our entry evaluation is pretty involved,” Lawrence continued. “We must make sure the school really will work for the child. There will be families seeking our school through the voucher system that will find we are not the right fit. We work hard with our parents to all be on the same page on what needs to be done for their child. Our parents bring their kids here because they need to, not because they want to. Thus they are very committed to their child’s educational path.”
Lawrence says Town & Country is not planning a facility or class size expansion in reaction to the new law. “We have to be very responsible about our growth. We have a clear vision about what we do here and we will not alter our plan due to the voucher. Yes, perhaps we will be able to serve some families who want a change for their child, such as [having] smaller class size, and could not afford to make that change in the past.”
Some Town & Country parents have considered leaving the school for a year, attending a public school under an IEP and then returning to the school, in order to take advantage of the scholarship. Yet Lawrence cannot guarantee the child will have a spot in their class if they are away for a school year. “We have a waiting list in some grades, especially middle school,” she said.
While all of Town & Country’s student population is comprised of children with special needs, 8 percent of Metro Christian School’s total student population is children with learning differences. Metro is another of Tulsa’s private schools approved by the state department of education to participate in the scholarship program. Metro’s Diagnostic Instruction Center offers students diagnosed with learning differences study labs, tutors as well as occupational, speech and language therapy.
“When a child enters Metro to utilize our Diagnostic Instruction Center, we take all of the tests and diagnostic information a child brings and, along with our evaluation, we create an Individual Educational Plan,” Nancy Stubblefield, director of Metro’s Diagnostic Instruction Center, explained.
“Our kids are not in self-contained, special needs classrooms, but are instead in regular classrooms. We look at the whole picture. Sometimes the child does need a smaller class size for English and math, but in social studies and science the child is in our mainstream classes. They never feel separated and participate and learn like the rest of their classmates.”
Andrea Kersey, a Tulsa mother of an 18-year-old son with high functioning autism believes socialization with regular students is very important for special needs kids. “Some will argue that special needs students attending a private school geared specifically for them doesn’t give them the opportunity to interact with regular educational peers. My son, Ryan, works hard to be social. It’s difficult for him, but with practice it’s a skill he is trying to master.”
Ryan has attended both public and private schools in Tulsa. He is now home schooled with two other students with special needs by a teacher who rents out the second quarter of a home in mid-town. “Ryan has jumped three reading levels since last year. He is developing friendships and is not made fun of because of his language impairment. We won’t qualify for the scholarship, but it is worth the cost of tuition for him to flourish.
“Some of the public schools are doing a great job, but they have their limitations. The large districts have many services but those schools are so large and overwhelming to most of these kids, they just fall through the cracks. Some of these students need to be in a different environment that gives them the security to feel safe and good about themselves in order for them to reach their potential,” she said.
“I fully supported HB3393 because parents like myself deserve an alternative for our kids,” Kersey said. “We should be able to provide our children with the best possible education and environment that fits their needs.”
Yet Kersey added, “The disappointing factor in HB3393 is that the funds cannot assist those that have spent their time in the public school system but are now in private or home school situations.“
Kersey is working daily on the creation of Heartland Academy, a special needs private, year around school to serve students grades 6 -12 who have autism spectrum disorder. Heartland will offer a unique curriculum where students are paired with mentors and a student’s curriculum and schedule can be tailored to their individual needs.
“We now have 40 parents waiting on the enrollment waiting list and I receive calls daily. My hope is that there will be more schools to support the amount of students needing a different opportunity,” Kersey said. “It really boils down to the fact that people just deserve a choice to make a decision that affects their child’s future.”
With the enactment of the special needs scholarship program in Oklahoma, will Tulsa see a growth in private schools designed to serve students with special needs?
“Based on the activity that has occurred in other states, such as Florida that has had legislation like this for many years, I do anticipate a growing number of start- up schools, “ Kimbrough said.
Saints Peter and Paul Catholic School
Town & Country School
Metro Christian Academy
Saint Pius X Catholic School
Victory Christian School
Immanuel Lutheran Christian Academy (Broken Arrow)
Summit Christian Academy (Broken Arrow)