Local & Regional
11:44 am
Wed January 20, 2010

Special Needs Scholarships

Oklahoma City, OK – Oklahoma school children with special needs -- such as those with Down's syndrome or autism - would have new education choices under legislation filed by state Rep. Jason Nelson and state Sen. Patrick Anderson.

The bill will also expand the Self-Directed Care Program to provide greater benefits to all developmentally disabled Oklahomans receiving state support.

"I believe the parents of special-needs children should have greater choice and control when it comes to their child's education," said Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. "These kids have unique challenges that are not always properly addressed by local schools. I believe the state should give those children the opportunity to attend the school that provides the best learning environment for them."

"The intent of this bill is to focus on the needs of the student," said Anderson, R-Enid. "This legislation will open the door for many families to have options when it comes to providing educational opportunities for their special-needs children."

House Bill 3393, by Nelson and Anderson, creates the Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program.

Under the bill, students with disabilities who have an individualized education program (IEP) would qualify for a scholarship to attend any school which meets the accreditation requirements of the State Board of Education.

The scholarship program would not require new spending during the downturn, but would merely redirect existing funds that are currently being spent on the student.

"Instead of having the child's educational options limited to what the local school can provide, the scholarships would allow parents to select schools based on the child's needs," Anderson said.

Andrea Kersey, mother of a child with high-functioning autism, has founded Heartland Academy in Tulsa, scheduled to open in 2010, which is dedicated to the education of students from 6th grade through 12th grade with high-functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome.

"Social issues, difficult for normal teens to navigate, can become completely overwhelming to the teen with autism," Kersey said.

Kersey's teen son needs the type of education she plans to bring to Tulsa.

"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. All students with special needs deserve every possible educational option and House Bill 3393 will give them new and better choices so they can achieve to their full potential," Kersey said.

House Bill 3393 also amends the Self-Directed Care Pilot Program administered by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services by expanding the program statewide and making it permanent. Under the program, individuals with developmental disabilities are given a budget allowance in which they direct services rather than a third party. This creates a saving that is shared by the individuals directing and receiving the service and with the Department of Human Services.

"What is so exciting about this approach is that the savings generated allow the state to serve more people on the five-year long waiting list for services, and it allows the individual directing their own services to better afford the help they need," said Nelson.

Money for the current program, the home- and community based services, is funneled through third-party provider agencies that direct the care, rather than the family. Because of the expense associated with third-party directed services, there is less money available to pay for those services. HB 3393 will allow the state to expand services to more people even in the middle of the state's budget crisis.

Under House Bill 3393, families will be provided a monthly budget and allowed to directly hire care staff at lower - but still market-based - rates. Families can also use the program to get much needed respite care. Nelson said.

"I have visited with families who tell me they sometimes get close to a breaking point while caring for their family member with disabilities and that the ability to take an evening off and focus on their marriage makes all the difference," Nelson said. "The importance of this became even clearer when I learned that 80 percent of parents with a special-needs child end up divorced."

Wanda Felty, parent of a child with multiple disabilities, said the cost of care could be just $10 per hour, providing significant savings compared to using a third-party provider.

"House Bill 3393 would help families obtain direct-care staff at a much lower rate, stretching dollars further and potentially allowing more families to come off the waiting list," Felty said. "It will allow a better use of limited state dollars and support a greater number of families at the same price."

Felty noted there are over 5,000 people on the waiting list for the home- and community-based services and some have been on the list for more than five years.

"This plan will not increase costs for the state; it will expand services for Oklahomans with special needs," Felty said.

Nelson noted he wanted this legislation to provide a benefit to all children with autism and other special needs.

"I wanted families to be able to use both education and DHS streams of money in concert to get the most complete and robust set of services and education possible for their child," said Nelson.

The 2010 legislative session will convene Feb. 1.