Standing up for special needs families

“What about organic?” she asks.

“Two percent? Skim?” “Milk is milk,” an exasperated manager tells her. “We’ve got one kind. It was good for me. It’s good enough for kids today.”

Education technology expert Richard Culatta recently shared that our public education system came to the U.S. via autocratic 18th-century Prussia. “Their purpose was as much disciplinary as it was educational,” he told an Oklahoma audience. “It was developed to bring people under social control.”

If we want to transform education for the better in this century, we need to offer more choice to parents. Parents must be able to choose what’s best for their children, with an education individualized to meet a student’s needs.

One reform in this direction is the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act, giving parents of special needs children the option to apply for scholarships to private schools. State Rep. Jason Nelson authored the law in 2010 with state Sen. Patrick Anderson. It was named after former Gov. Brad Henry’s infant daughter, who died of a rare neuromuscular disease.

The scholarship program has come under attack from superintendents in two northeastern Oklahoma school districts that countersued a group of parents. The parents filed suit in April 2011 when their children were denied the scholarships.

Since taking office, I’ve had the honor of meeting several times with families of special needs children taking advantage of this innovative program. I admire their determination in the face of indifference and hostility. These scholarships also have helped families seek assistance for children with autism from a collaborative project between the University of Central Oklahoma and Mercy Health Center.

Meanwhile, opponents to the scholarship program try to make the reform sound like a nefarious plot with breathless rhetoric about “dismantling public education.” They also cite the state constitution’s prohibition of public money “directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support” of any religion or sectarian institution.

Yet Oklahoma City University law professor and state constitutional expert Andrew Spiropoulos recently observed, “If the Henry program breaches the wall of separation between church and state, then so does every state-funded program where an individual can choose the provider of the service.”

The particular portion of our state constitution that opponents are clinging to also has a somewhat dubious history, stemming from bigoted, anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment efforts across many states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although opponents to Henry scholarships won an early victory with a favorable and flawed ruling from a Tulsa judge, I’m optimistic the state Supreme Court will rule in the families’ favor.

Ultimately, this is a clash between world views: One group wishes to hold to a status quo that isn’t working for many, and doesn’t seem designed for the needs of a new century.

Another group, and I count myself among them, wants to see more choice in education, not less. Choice is good for children, it’s good for communities, and it is good for schools.

Barresi is the state superintendent of public instruction.