| November 1, 2010

Special Needs: Seeking the Wisdom of Solomon

In 2010, Oklahoma took a dramatic and historic step toward a “child-centric” rather than a "system-centric" approach to use of taxpayer dollars supporting education.

The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships were created. The law creating the program passed the state House with a combination of four Democrats and most Republicans, offsetting most Democrats and a few Republicans. Then, it cleared the state Senate—Republicans for, Democrats against.

Along the way, the measure, also known as “Lindsey’s Law,” gained support from, and the “vetting” of, two key Democrats: Governor Brad Henry and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett.

The law by state Rep. Jason Nelson and state Sen. Patrick Anderson, both Republicans, is named for the daughter Gov. Henry and his wife, Kim, lost in infancy to a rare disease.

Advocates of school choice hope the new governor and Legislature will sustain and build on the scholarships, perhaps broadening the precedent to other arenas.

The most challenging issue of all in the special needs/special education matrix is to develop sound policies to address autism and other serious afflictions that fall within the cluster of pervasive developmental disorders. This issue has consumed much energy and attention over the past several years, but there is at least a hint of a way forward.

Some advocates want insurers to step up to the plate, and are willing to mandate coverage of such afflictions if necessary. Others quietly (or not so quietly) despair of any fiscally sustainable approach to these toughest of the special-needs challenges.

Twenty-three states include autism in mandated health care coverage. The issue is under consideration in another 13 states and the District of Columbia, according to “Autism Speaks,” a national advocacy group. Another nine states are on the verge of tackling the insurance mandate question. Oklahoma is one of five states that have not acted on the mandate issue.

Lindsey’s Law might provide a way forward. For starters, why not make it absolutely clear that special-education benefits under the law include parent-selected (and evidence-based) strategies and therapies for these children?

One family that might gain modest relief from such clarity is that of Solomon Littleton, a seven-year-old Edmond boy who, at the age of five in October 2008, contracted Landau-Kleffner syndrome, a rare neurological disease. Over the course of nine months, the boy lost motor skills, and the abilities to feed, dress, and toilet himself. A year ago this summer, he stopped speaking.

Solomon’s father, Eric, attacked his son’s disease by bleeding dry his resources and battling his insurer’s decision to drop Solomon’s coverage.

Meanwhile, he has sought to access public special-education dollars to finance at least part of the “bombardment” therapies—multi-sensory and multi-faceted—that doctors say are the only hope to stem or reverse Solomon’s slide. He addressed state legislators at a fall interim-study hearing on Lindsey’s Law.

Solomon’s local school district is disinclined to finance the therapy his doctors believe is best suited for the illness. Eric “respectfully disagrees” with the assertion that Solomon could be helped with a few hours of individual therapy every week.

Again: why not make it clear that special-education benefits in Oklahoma include such strategies?

This is not a perfect fix, but as Eric Littleton said in an interview last month, “I don’t know one of the parents of a special-needs child who would sneer at any approach to open up the system” along these lines.

Avoiding false hope, consider a rational projection based on what seems possible: There will be no grand solution in the near term, but there are ways to assist families—our neighbors and fellow taxpayers.

In terms of public policy, Oklahoma’s part in improving U.S. health care policy could be to let the whole state “opt out” of the fiscal- and insurance-policy nightmare of “Obamacare,” creating a giant laboratory of experimentation that is patient-centered, and family-centered.

While we’re at it, the state might do the same for education—particularly at that troublesome crossroads where education policy and health care policy meet. There’s always hope, but some signs are not good.

Last month, six public school boards in Oklahoma voted to refuse to comply with Lindsey’s Law. Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett, who helped assure Lindsey’s Law would pass legal muster, said she believed those board members had violated their oaths of office. That was gutsy.

After a couple of years reporting on these issues, and listening to the parents and grandparents and seeing the children themselves, I know that the data are essential. Facts and figures rob us of the simplicity of emotion, forcing us into the weeds of public policy.

And yet, data sometimes can distract from essentials. When I report on special-needs policy battles, I hear the voices of children and remember their touch.

If I forget them, I will forget myself.

I cannot forget Alan Edmondson, and his grandmother Mona Stewart. In a CapitolBeatOK news story several weeks ago entitled “When Special Education Isn’t,” I described his decade of being shuttled from school to school in Oklahoma City, and a terrible 2005 incident in which he was severely injured while in the care of the local school employees.

He is 16 now, and Mona worries what will happen when she is not around to be his advocate and shield. She told me: “What’s going to happen to this child when I am gone? He isn’t being taught, beyond what I’ve given him, to be self-sufficient. He is not learning how to communicate or being given any basis to become successful in the world. How is he going to achieve things in his later years, after I am gone?”

And then, there’s Solomon Littleton. In our interview session on the fourth floor of the Oklahoma state capitol building, Eric Littleton told me stories sad enough to make a granite column weep.

On the other hand, Eric shared a memory to stir the soul the other way, in gratitude for times of tender mercy. He remembered an evening at the lake, last July 4, moments the whole Littleton tribe shared, including Solomon. Eric says:

“We took the boat out to watch the sunset … a new and possibly challenging adventure we hadn’t undertaken in two years due to the circumstances. As the five of us along with Meemaw and Pawpaw Littleton sat on the boat watching the sunset, Solomon grew more and more calm. His pacing stopped. His stimming went away. His crying out diminished.

“And, as the waters gently rocked the boat from side to side, he sat on his knees on the seat of the boat and watched the sun slowly set over the lake, turning occasionally to smile at one of us. Ordinary becomes extraordinary when it goes away and returns, I suppose. Then we watched the fireworks show. …

“Solomon’s eyes widened with joy as the sky lit up with all the different colors, and a smile crossed his face as he quickly glanced at us to make sure we were watching the same beautiful show that he was watching. We weren’t, however, because we were all watching a more beautiful display … a Mona Lisa from our Master painted on the canvas of our night that was titled ‘Ordinary.’”

There are good people who fear the emergence of school choice. In that fear, they are wrong, but most of them mean well. They are wrong about special-needs scholarships because they have not yet incorporated the fundamental wisdom of Lindsey’s Law: The needs of the child should outweigh the needs of the system.

There is a story (1 Kings 3: 16-28) that captures the wisdom of Solomon, king of ancient Israel. He had faults, but governed with justice and love, integrity and compassion, no doubt because he had begged God not for riches or fame, but for wisdom to rule the people well.

There came before him two women, both prostitutes. They were fighting over a baby, each insisting she was the child’s true mother and that a baby who had died was that of the other woman. After hearing their stories, Solomon ruled that the child should be sliced in two and divided between them.

At that moment, one insisted on victory, and was willing to sacrifice the child. The other surrendered and begged the king to give to the other women the living child, rather than see the baby die.

Solomon ruled for the woman who wanted the child to live. In Jewish tradition, there are in this story complex layers of meaning, but nothing to contradict the essentials: the one who wanted what was best for the babe was the true mother.

Doesn’t it make sense, in every case, to put the force and majesty of the law on the child’s side? If the question is not merely rhetorical, then why not act accordingly?

We don’t have to wait for Superman, or for the return of Solomon.

Ordinary, and special. Of course, there are differences of needs, and of degrees, but is there a difference in kind?

Let us pray for the wisdom of Solomon.

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