Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Governor inks special-needs bill

Hats off to Governor Brad Henry, who yesterday signed into law the most important bill of the entire 2010 legislative session. The House press release is below, and a video is here. (For the record, the House roll call is here, and the Senate roll call is here.)
OKLAHOMA CITY (June 8, 2010) -- Supporters praised Gov. Brad Henry today for signing a bill providing scholarships to special needs students.

"This is a great day for Oklahoma families with special needs children," said state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. "For those families, this bill is a chance at a better education and a better life."

House Bill 3393, by Nelson and state Sen. Patrick Anderson, would allow students with disabilities who have an individualized education program (IEP) to qualify for a scholarship to attend any public or private school that meets the accreditation requirements of the State Board of Education.

The legislation had strong support from many families of children with autism.

The legislation has been named the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act to honor the memory of the governor's daughter, who died of a rare neuromuscular disease as an infant.

"We are very honored that Governor and Mrs. Henry have allowed us to name this important piece of legislation after their daughter who passed away at seven months of age," said Wanda Felty, parent of a child with multiple disabilities. "The simple fact is there is often an unspoken bond among parents of special needs children, and although Lindsey Nicole's life was short, she helped shape the type of people the Henrys are. We appreciate their compassion and understanding of our plight, and we certainly appreciate the Governor’s support of this bill."

"We want to make it clear, neither the Governor, nor his wife, nor his staff, nor anyone connected to him asked for this change. Instead it was suggested to him as a way to honor the memory of his daughter and let it be known for generations to come that she, and her parents, are helping to improve the lives of special needs children across the state," said state House Speaker Pro Tempore Kris Steele, R-Shawnee. "Especially given that this program was passed in the waning days of the last legislative session of Governor Henry's tenure, we think this action is both appropriate and warranted. We are pleased that Representative Nelson agreed to amend his Conference Committee Report to include this change."

Lindsey Nicole was the twin of the Henrys' oldest daughter, Leah. Lindsey died at seven months of age due to complications from a rare genetic disorder.

The scholarship program created through House Bill 3393 would not require new spending, but would merely redirect existing state funds that are currently spent on the student.

Other states with similar laws include Florida, Georgia, Utah, Ohio, and Arizona. The Florida program has been in place since 1999 and now serves approximately 20,000 students with special needs. House Bill 3393 closely mirrors the Florida and Georgia laws.

"Having visited with many families of special-needs students, I know how important this legislation is to ensuring they are able to provide the best future possible for their children," said Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. "It is only fitting that we honor the Henrys and Lindsey Nicole as part of this process to show that even the worst moments of our lives can have positive repercussions. I appreciate the governor's support and this opportunity to honor his daughter."

To better understand the importance of this law, here is a brief video telling the story of a special-needs student in Arizona.

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