Ray Carter | April 2, 2024

Oklahoma senators target special-needs discrimination

Ray Carter

Under existing state law, Oklahoma public schools can treat children with special needs differently than other children whenever a family seeks an open transfer into another district.

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said the discrimination against those children, who have an individualized education program (IEP), is likely illegal and sets up the state for legal problems.

“I know for a fact that IEP transfers are not treated with the same respect that students who do not have some special needs are,” Treat said. “I think we’re setting ourselves up for potential litigation if we don’t fix this. But even short of that, I believe that children on an IEP deserve to be treated equally with their peer students who don’t have those needs.”

Under the state’s existing open-transfer law, schools are required to report the number of students they can accept and the families of children denied a transfer can appeal that decision, first to the local school board and then to the State Board of Education.

But those requirements apply only to children who do not have special needs. If a transfer request is filed for a child on an IEP, the district does not have to publicly report how many such students it can accept, nor are those families given any way to appeal a denial.

The system has stranded many children in districts that are not serving them, and in some cases parents have had to go to extreme lengths to obtain a transfer for children who have learning challenges.

House Bill 3386, by House Speaker Charles McCall and Treat, originally dealt with intradistrict transfers but was amended in the Senate Education Committee to also provide an appeals process for students on an IEP who are denied a transfer to another district.

Under the bill, if a student on an IEP is denied a transfer, the child’s parents or guardian would have 10 days to appeal that decision to the local school board, which must consider the appeal at the group’s next meeting. If a local school board denies the transfer, the child’s family has another 10 days to appeal that decision to the State Board of Education, which must consider the issue at its next regular meeting.

“Just like you can when your child is not on an IEP, this just gives those parents who have children on IEP the ability to appeal those decisions both to the local school board and to the state board,” Treat said.

Variation from District to District

Publicly reported data show wide variations from district to district when it comes to treatment of children on an IEP, and many families may have good reasons to want to transfer a child elsewhere.

Under state law, schools are expected to facilitate the involvement of parents in structuring a child’s IEP to maximize the benefit of services and improve student outcomes. The state goal is for 94 percent of parents to report a satisfactory level of involvement in their child’s IEP process in each district.

But some districts fall far short of that goal, including districts with significant financial resources.

For example, in the 2022 state fiscal year, just 69.39 percent of parents in the Deer Creek district, a suburban district in the Oklahoma City metro, reported that the school facilitated sufficient involvement in their child’s IEP process.

That was well below the state goal and even below the level of parent involvement achieved in the state’s troubled Oklahoma City and Tulsa districts, where 76.83 percent and 85.27 percent of parents reported involvement, respectively.

That poor outcome occurred even though the average family in the Deer Creek district is financially well above the state norm. Just 11.9 percent of Deer Creek students are classified as economically disadvantaged compared to the state average of 59.2 percent. Median household income in the Deer Creek district is roughly double the state average.

But parents in Deer Creek fared better than parents in the Edmond school district, where just 57.14 percent of IEP students’ parents reported satisfactory involvement. Only 24.6 percent of students in that district are economically disadvantaged and household income is also far above the state average.

And Edmond parents fared much better than the parents of children on IEPs in the Piedmont district, where only 25 percent of families reported that school officials facilitated sufficient parental involvement in their child’s IEP process and education goals.

Similar poor numbers were also recorded at other major school districts around the state. Rather than achieve the 94 percent satisfaction rate sought by the state, Jenks satisfied just 77.78 percent of parents. Lawton’s processes gained buy-in from just 66.67 percent of parents. Only 68.75 percent of parents said the Norman district allowed sufficient input on their child’s IEP, and in Moore just 66.67 percent of parents said they were satisfied.

Those poor outcomes are especially notable given the success many other districts achieve involving parents. Among the state’s larger school districts, 92 percent of parents in Yukon said the district facilitated parent involvement, and Muskogee met the state goal by having 94.12 percent of parents say the school involved them in their child’s IEP process. At other schools 100-percent approval ratings are not unknown, including at districts such as Millwood, Medford, Pawnee and Wynona.

Even so, some lawmakers objected to creating an appeals process for IEP students denied an open transfer.

“These are issues that local school districts handled among themselves,” said state Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa.

She objected to “managing these transfers from the state level.”

State Sen. Dusty Deevers, R-Elgin, said a superintendent in his district opposed the bill, claiming it is an “unfunded” mandate “that would require extra paperwork, taking on more special-education students, and also requiring another employee just for the paperwork.”

Treat noted there is no extra reporting required by the bill and that the legislation simply duplicates the existing appeals process for all other open-transfer requests.

The Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) opposed a similar bill in the Oklahoma House of Representatives in February. OSSBA is funded through payments from schools, which come from taxpayer funds. In essence, schools use the taxes paid by parents to pay OSSBA lobbyists to advocate against bills like HB 3386, including the taxes paid by the parents of children on an IEP who would benefit from HB 3386.

HB 3386 passed the Senate Education Committee on a 9-3 vote. The bill will now proceed to the floor of the Oklahoma Senate.

“State law allows discrimination of students on an IEP, currently,” Treat said. “This fixes that.”

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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