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Dreams, Challenges, and a Journey, Together

June 1, 2010 - 3:25pm CDT

Some stories write themselves. This is one of those. Emily Deal lives in the MidTown area of Oklahoma City. She is the mother of three, one of them an autistic son.

State Sen. Patrick Anderson, an Enid Republican, told her story in a May 20 letter to Senate colleagues. When Emily went to enroll her son Jimi in the local public school two years back, she was told the only special education available to him was 30 minutes of group therapy once a week.

Deal "found a better alternative for her child," as Anderson recounted. Accessing that alternative has required her to borrow money, work long hours, and make countless sacrifices so her son can attend Villa Teresa School, run for more than a century by the Carmelite sisters.

Sister Veronica, the seemingly ageless nun who runs the school, told Anderson, "To look at Jimi you would never know him to be the same little person he was two years ago." And, "if you didn't know him, you would never know he has autism." He sang in a first grade program. In the Poetry Festival, he recited a poem by heart. Sister Veronica dares to dream: "Tomorrow, he may be a teacher, a lawyer, a minister or a doctor."

In a session with reporters early last month, Emily was disarming in her nervousness, confessing she is not accustomed to press conferences. She praised Villa: "My son went from being nonverbal to being able to progress in school and education." Imagine what his life might have been like without Villa Teresa.

Emily came to the Capitol to give heartfelt support for House Bill 3393, a measure Anderson carried in the Senate for state Rep. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City. It creates special-needs scholarships for children like Jimi.

One reporter asked Emily, "What were your thoughts when you heard about this bill?" She answered, "I was ecstatic. It could provide me with a level of independence to provide adequately for my own children."

Strange Bedfellows

It turns out this is not about politics or normal assumptions. Emily Deal and Anastasia Pittman have, on most political issues, different views from those of Sally Kern and Jason Nelson. It also turns out that Pittman and Nelson-state representatives in opposite parties-had developed similar proposals in the months leading up to the 2010 legislative session.

Nelson invited Pittman to co-sponsor his bill. She let him take the lead in the Republican-dominated House, but no one at the Capitol doubts that her support, and that of Rep. Jabar Shumate of Tulsa, was pivotal. Joining the African-American Democrats were two other House Democrats, Rebecca Hamilton of Oklahoma City and Wade Rousselot of Wagoner.

Pittman told reporters, "This legislation is proactive. It will help keep good people here in Oklahoma. This legislation will raise the bar in education. It will make our school districts better, it will make our families stronger. This bill will bring better education and services for these children. Rep. Nelson and I started on this journey together, and we're going to end it together."

When they stood beside each other to support Nelson's bill, Kern and Pittman embraced and expressed their admiration for his indispensable leadership.

That assessment was borne out in final House debate on May 21, after some powerful public school superintendents, and the most powerful Oklahoma law firm in public education, Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold of Tulsa, ramped up rhetoric and attacks on the bill.

What the Bill Says

Nelson calmly countered distortions of the bill's contents. He explained to colleagues that the state Department of Education had reviewed the proposal, as had the governor's office, without serious objections. The bill incorporated state Superintendent Sandy Garrett's ideas on methodology for disbursements.

Specific provisions are drawn from disability rights' activists and education officials. Scholarships can be used for "a private school of choice for students with disabilities for whom an individualized education program (IEP) in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has been developed."

Recipients can only be someone who "spent the prior school year in attendance at a public school," that is, a student "enrolled in and reported by a school district for funding purposes during the preceding school year."

Receiving schools are limited to institutions meeting "the accreditation requirements set by the State Board of Education or another accrediting association approved" by the board and that have reported to the department availability of grade levels for such students. The school must also demonstrate fiscal soundness or post a surety bond or letter of credit "for the amount equal to the scholarship funds."

Participating schools must meet antidiscrimination laws, and state and local health and safety codes. Teachers at the facilities must "hold baccalaureate or higher degrees, or have at least three years of teaching experience in public or private schools, or have special skills, knowledge, or expertise that qualifies them to provide instruction in subjects taught." Receiving schools must also comply "with all state laws relating to general regulation of private schools."

Scholarships will be provided to parents or legal guardians who "shall restrictively endorse the warrant" to a school. The maximum amount would be "for an eligible student with disabilities" and calculated "to the local and county revenue for the school district which is chargeable in the State Aid formula, state-dedicated revenue, and state-appropriated funds." The scholarship would be calculated each year by the state Board of Education.

The proposal allows 5 percent of the amount to be "retained by the school district as a fee for administrative services rendered." Public school districts would not be responsible for additional costs. Further, "No liability shall arise on the part of the state or school district based on the award or use of any scholarship provided."

Based on the law firm's talking points, opponents repeatedly asserted the exact opposite of the law's actual provisions. In closing comments, Nelson vented some anger and called on opponents to deal in "facts and documentation." He asserted, "Nearly every issue raised in today's debate has been addressed, documented, and answered in this bill. For goodness' sake, can't we stick to the facts?" As for potential litigation, "It is the other side's suggestions that would leave all the grounds for litigation in place. That is a fact."

Fifty Republicans joined the four Democrats, and the bill went on to the Senate.

Enid Student Lends Support

Just before they grappled with the bill, three days before adjournment, many senators had the opportunity to meet with Amanda LaMunyon, an Enid girl with Asperger's Syndrome (a form of autism). She supported the special-needs scholarship bill.

The 15-year-old girl is a constituent of state Sen. Anderson. "This bill won't help me because I've gone to private school. But I support it to give more opportunities and freedom of choice to other children," she said.

Amanda has lived her entire life in Enid. Her initial school experiences were not positive. She could, her mother remembers, "recite all the rules, but had trouble implementing them." Then, her condition was discerned. Amanda's gift for artistic expression, especially painting, was notable.

Today, Amanda is a vivacious young girl on her way to adulthood. She told me, "I have a disability. My message to others, and in support of this bill, is to not give up, to keep on keepin' on. You can turn a challenge into a gift."

Amanda loves show music, and recently portrayed "Gertie" in a school production of "Oklahoma!" One of her paintings, "Dream for Day After Day," is featured on a website promoting awareness of "autism spectrum disorders." She has become known not only for artistry but also for her speaking ability and advocacy.

Lindsey's Law

When the Senate debated H.B. 3393, Jay Paul Gumm of Durant pressed Anderson on beliefs among some foes that the program should be centrally controlled rather than allowing scholarships to be processed by and through local school districts. He argued for stricter oversight. Anderson responded that the measure incorporated the suggestions of state school superintendent Sandy Garrett and her staff.

Despite good words for Anderson, Gumm said the bill would "do maximum damage to public education, and a minimum number of people would be helped." Anderson said, "This legislation will not hurt public education; it will help children with special needs." He affirmed his status as "a product of public education," whose own children attend public schools.

The measure prevailed, 25-22, as 25 Republicans united to back the bill. One Republican joined 21 Democrats in opposition. Minority Leader Charlie Laster of Shawnee did not vote.

After the vote was declared but before senators moved to other business, Sen. Sean Burrage of Claremore, the father of a special-needs child and an opponent of the bill, walked over to shake Anderson's hand. Anderson glanced to his right, extending his hand to Gumm, who sits near him on the Senate floor. Gumm responded in kind.

Thus the legislative drama ended, and the bill advanced to Governor Brad Henry's desk. He signed it into law on June 8, 2010.

The bill will be known officially as the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act. In early May, Nelson and Anderson-working with state Rep. Kris Steele and in caring consultation with the governor and his wife, Kim-had named the measure for a baby girl who, 20 years ago, died at the age of seven months.
Lindsey was lost to a rare disabling illness. She passed from this world into the next while resting in the arms of her heartbroken father, a politician from Shawnee who went on to become a governor known for passionate commitment to education.

In honoring her memory, the people of Oklahoma honor themselves.

We'll call it Lindsey's Law.

Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is editor of CapitolBeatOK.com.