From left, state Rep. Tim Downing, Robert Ruiz, and state Sen. AJ Griffin are pictured at the July 6 meeting of the Oklahoma School Choice Coalition. Ruiz, director of the parent organization ChoiceMatters, presented an award to the six co-authors of SB 301. Also receiving awards (but not present on July 6) were state Rep. Jon Echols, state Sen. Anastasia Pittman, state Sen. Rob Standridge, and state Rep. Elise Hall.
By Jay Chilton, CIJ
Parents, school choice activists, and legislators were lauded this month for passage of Senate Bill 301 during the 2017 Oklahoma legislative session. State Sen. AJ Griffin, R-Guthrie, delivered the plaudits during a July 6 meeting of the Oklahoma School Choice Coalition.
SB 301 expands the eligibility for the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program. Formerly limited to special-needs students, eligibility now extends to children in foster care and children adopted out of state custody.
Griffin, along with state Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, authored the bill, which passed with bipartisan support on a vote of 43-0 in the Senate (with three members excused) and 87-0 in the House (11 members excused). SB 301 was signed into law by Governor Mary Fallin on May 12. It will take effect on September 1.
“You give me entirely too much credit,” Griffin told coalition participants. “Whenever you get legislation passed you should be very suspicious of someone who says, ‘I did something.’ The legislative process is a team sport.” Griffin said Echols was “crucial” in getting the bill passed.
“I also want to say thank you to Matt Ball,” Griffin added. “Matt works tirelessly to help pass lots of legislation. … He was very helpful.” Ball lobbied for the bill on behalf of the American Federation for Children.
Griffin said the bill was intended to support and expand what she considers to be one of the crowning achievements of the legislature, the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships. She also applauded the work of former state Rep. Jason Nelson, a longtime Oklahoma school-choice champion. Nelson, who attended the meeting, authored in the Henry scholarship bill in 2010.
“We have turned the corner when it comes to acknowledging the importance of the brain in the function and development of children,” Griffin said. “When it comes to the needs of children we have for a long time kind of put blinders on. There was a belief for many years that if a child were to come from a broken family, they just needed a family and they would be fine.
“We now know that kids are resilient. Kids do forget, but the brain always remembers. Childhood trauma is real and it impacts the development of the human brain forever. It can be repaired but that requires treatment,” she said.
“That’s what this change, Senate Bill 301, is about,” she said. “It is not about saying that public education is bad—I’ve never said that and I never will. It is about saying that some children who have suffered a brain change, it requires them to have a different environment in order to thrive and learn.”
Griffin said 100 percent of Oklahoma’s children in secure state-run facilities have been kicked out of school; 70 percent have open Department of Human Services case files.
“This is criminal justice reform at its purest and finest,” she said. “Children who experience at least six months in an out-of-home placement in a child welfare system, they are more likely to go to prison than they are to graduate from college. Now that’s a scary statistic.”
Griffin said that of all the traumas that kids endure, the one that often matters the most is removal from their families.
Following Griffin’s address, Matt Pinnell—a foster father himself—took the opportunity to praise Griffin and her work, calling her a dynamic leader.
“For us, [fostering] started three or four years ago,” said Pinnell, who is seeking the office of lieutenant governor next year. “My wife just kept bringing babies home. Some people bring home puppies, my wife brings home babies.”
He said that SB 301 gives foster parents additional tools to help children within the state custody system and makes foster care for at-risk youth a more accessible option for many Oklahoma families.
Robert Ruiz, director of ChoiceMatters, closed the meeting with an appreciation award for the six lawmakers who co-authored SB 301. ChoiceMatters is a parent organization which educates Oklahomans on the educational choices available to students.
In addition to Griffin and Echols, the bill’s co-authors are Sen. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, Rep. Elise Hall, R-Oklahoma City, and Rep. Tim Downing, R-Purcell. Griffin and Downing were in attendance at the meeting.
The Oklahoma School Choice Coalition, formed in 2009, meets monthly at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.