Ray Carter | April 25, 2024

Lawmakers object to aiding homeless and special-needs children

Ray Carter

Legislation that would allow homeless children and kids with special needs to have swift access to a state program that pays for those groups to receive private-school education was rejected by House lawmakers on April 23.

A day later, facing potential public backlash, lawmakers partially relented and approved a bill that would allow homeless youth to access the program—but many lawmakers continued to oppose even that small gesture of support for needy families.

Notably, opponents explicitly rejected the bill during the April 23 debate because it would benefit homeless children and those with special needs, such as autism.

The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities (LNH) program, created in 2010, allows families of students with special needs to receive state funds to attend private schools that better serve them.

The scholarship program has made it possible for specialized private schools to exist in Oklahoma, such as Town & Country School in the Tulsa area and Trinity School at Edgemere in the Oklahoma City area. Town & Country School’s emphasis includes children with autism. Trinity School serves children with learning differences that include autism, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, auditory and sensory processing issues, anxiety, and developmental or intellectual delays.

However, to qualify for the LNH program, a child must first be enrolled in a public school district for a year. For many families, such as those with autism, a child’s diagnosis is known before they enter school and families also know the local district is not capable of fully serving a child with those needs.

As a result, the one-year wait causes many children to fall even further behind their peers.

As originally filed, Senate Bill 358, by state Sen. Julie Daniels and state Rep. Jon Echols, eliminated the requirement for a student to be enrolled in a public school for one year before receiving an LNH scholarship. It also expanded the program to include children who are homeless.

Currently, the state has one private school that is focused on serving homeless children, Positive Tomorrows.

Several lawmakers objected to adding homeless children to the program.

But Echols noted education helps break cycles of dysfunction and he stressed that schools like Positive Tomorrows not only benefit children who are homeless, but also parents who are escaping an abusive partner.

“This is the number one bill we have this session if your greatest passion is doing something about homelessness,” said Echols, R-Oklahoma City. “And, frankly, I would argue if one of your greatest passions is doing something about domestic violence, this is the best bill we will have on the floor this year to do something about that.”

It’s estimated that about 80 percent of children attending Positive Tomorrows are homeless because one parent is fleeing domestic abuse.

One supporter of SB 358, state Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, noted that children who are a “non-special-needs student” and are not homeless can qualify for other school-choice programs immediately without having to first spend a year in a local public school.

He said SB 358’s passage would simply put children with special needs on equal footing with other students in terms of access to school-choice opportunities.

“We’re trying to provide that equity and that same level of consideration to special-needs students and homeless students,” Caldwell said.

But opponents expressed opposition to the bill because it would benefit children with special needs.

State Rep. Mark Vancuren, R-Owasso, was among those who expressed that view, criticizing the provision to remove the one-year delay in access.

“Would that not open it up to more students to have the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship available to them?” Vancuren said.

“You are correct, representative,” Echols responded. “It would open up to more students with disabilities.”

After that exchange, Vancuren voted against the bill’s passage.

The possibility that SB 358’s passage would increase private schools serving at-risk children also drew opposition.

“Do you also foresee more Positive Tomorrow-type schools appearing around Oklahoma and receiving this voucher?” asked state Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa.

“Man, I hope so,” Echols responded. “We’re talking about homeless kids. And I guess I just don’t believe homeless kids have it too good right now. So, I hope there’s more services we get to provide.”

After that exchange, Waldron voted against SB 358’s passage.

SB 358 failed on a 39-50 vote. Thirty-one Republicans sided with Democratic opponents to prevent the bill from being sent to the governor’s desk.

The following day, April 24, the bill was brought up a second time and amended so that it only provided LNH opportunities to homeless children. Even so, many lawmakers continued to oppose it.

Echols said those who opposed the amended SB 358 and still claim they “want to help” homeless kids will be hard-pressed to prove it.

“This bill is not hard,” Echols said. “I mean, there’s just nothing hard about this at this point.”

He reiterated that passage of SB 358 would increase the likelihood that more private schools will open to serve homeless children.

“There is a strong chance, if this were to pass, that one may open up in Tulsa,” Echols said.

Because the bill was amended, however, even homeless children would have to attend a public school for a year before they would qualify for an LNH scholarship. As a result, a child who became homeless at age four might not qualify for the program.

Some opponents appeared to be aware that the optics of opposing efforts to aid homeless children might not play well with the public.

State Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, opposed SB 358 on April 23. But on the House floor on April 24, he referred to Positive Tomorrows as one of the “incredible schools” across the country that serve homeless children.

However, he still did not vote for the amended SB 358, choosing to instead not cast a vote at all on April 24.

Vancuren, who objected to SB 358 on April 23 because it would aid more children with special needs, did not vote in support of the bill on April 24 even after those children were removed from the bill. Like Bennett, Vancuren did not cast a vote even though he was present, a practice called “walking the vote” at the Oklahoma Capitol.

The homeless-students-only version of SB 358 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 67-22 vote.

Ten of the 22 opponents were Republicans. That placed them to the political left of some Democratic lawmakers. State Reps. Ellyn Hefner, D-Oklahoma City; Ajay Pittman, D-Oklahoma City; and Suzanne Schreiber, D-Tulsa, all voted for the amended SB 358.

The bill now returns to the Oklahoma Senate for consideration.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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