by Max Brantley
Truly, I have never had a conversation with anybody that I know of from the Walton Foundation. I did know that WF was or is a sponsor of the Friedman Foundation. It was at a Friedman seminar in Charlotte, NC in 2013 or 2014 that I first met two OK legislators (a Dem Senator and GOP Rep) about their scholarship program for disabled kids. But the idea for the scholarship program came after two dear friends of my wife, Anita, and me, who had so very very much trouble with PCSSD trying to get educational help for their two adopted children. These were HDC kids who were devastated by their mother's crack cocaine addition while she was pregnant. No, HDC did not tell the adoptive parents. But everybody else who got involved in the Succeed Scholarship came in after I filed my bill. If it is wrong, it is my fault. If it is right, then I credit the bipartisan cooperation of all 135 members of the General Assembly and everybody who believes that every child deserves an appropriate education.
I have said publicly, and say so again: I do not like vouchers either. Vouchers are contractual promises by the state to pay a private institution. A scholarship puts the parents in control. In the Succeed Scholarship a parent controls the money and can yank it on a month's notice. The state makes no promises. Are some parents going to screw up? Of course. Some schools screw up now, too. But I am not so elitist to say that a parent does not have the right to make their own decisions about what is best for their own disabled child. Straw-man "what if" lack-of-the-perfect will not be the enemy of the good. I have also promised that I would not introduce a bill to expand this program to other than severely disabled children.
When I was working on the bill in 2015, I went to the Associations for Administrators, School Boards and the Teachers. I presented them with some indisputable facts: first, every special education teacher in this state and nation will admit that there are simply some children whose disabilities are so severe that a public school academic environment cannot help them. Examples: Down's, Autism, MS, MD, injuries, prenatal injuries and poisoning etc. Secondly, many of these kids are extremely expensive for the school districts, and most of the district administrators and principals struggle to do the best they can. And lastly, many parents recognize that despite the best efforts by the schools, an alternative learning environment offers a better alternative, but they simply can't afford it. Pathfinder for Down's kids in Jacksonville, and Access Academy in Little Rock for a host of other disabilities offer alternatives to desperate parents. These are the kids and the parents I am trying to help. It's not much. The school districts have the authority to spend whatever money needed to fund these kids at alternative schools. But to get them to do so?
So the administrators, teachers, and school board reps offered suggestions. They were frank, they could not support a scholarship program but they would not fight it. (After all, there is a financial incentive for them if they can't really help a kid) But give the schools a one year try. Give the schools an opportunity to visit with the parents about the resources the schools can bring to the table before the parents make the commitment. Have the parents sign a waiver that so long as the child is dis-enrolled, the district and the state are relieved from responsibility. Gosh, consider Vilonia, one of my districts. it is a district that pulls out all the stops to do the best they can and I'd pit them against any school district in the country. I;ve seen a kid in a wheel chair. with modified classrooms, with two teachers and two attendants, a special bus, etc. This is a $200,000 kid!. But ultimately, it is the parents' choice. Are some parents going to make bad decisions, of course they are. I love the public schools, and most of my colleagues (especially the rural GOP members) are crazy about theirs. But every last one of them (see the vote count for the bill and the appropriation) recognize that there are simply some kids that can't be helped in a traditional setting. Gosh, we have the Schools for the Blind and the Deaf. We don't have public schools for the Down's, or for the autistic, or the quadriplegic. Wealthy folks or folks with means have already found the help for their child, or grandchild. I learned of one financial institution executive who is most pleased with her autistic granddaughter singing songs and hugging teacher assistants all day long. She related that while she has the means, they also have raffles and car washes to raise money to help the less wealthy parents pay their way. This is a blessing for the parents of limited means.
In 2017 I plan to tighten up the definition of severely disabled. I'm not an educator, I am a retired soldier. I wished somebody had told me about the federal disability classification system when we were talking about this very subject in 2015. And I also think that it is foolish to force a parent to enroll a kindergartner for a year, the parent and the school knowing full well they can't help a particular child, just in order to get state assistance in an alternative learning environment. I'm comfortable with authorizing the district superintendent ( or her designee) to waive the one year enrollment requirement. I see the wisdom of a pilot program, you learn along the way.