Thursday, June 5, 2014

Hofmeister supports suing parents of special-needs children

I don't agree with Supt. Janet Barresi on every issue, but there's no question she is a strong advocate for giving parents as many educational options as possible. The same cannot be said for her opponents. Below is a new ad and a press release from the Barresi campaign.

While State Superintendent Janet Barresi has always fought for parents’ right to choose the best education for their children, her opponent Joy Hofmeister actually conspired to prevent some of Oklahoma’s neediest children from obtaining a quality education, according to public records.

“Throughout her career, Janet Barresi has fought for the right of parents to provide their children a quality education, no matter what a family’s social or economic background. This includes her support of state-funded scholarships for children with special needs such as autism,” said Robyn Matthews, campaign manager for Janet Barresi. “In contrast, public records show Joy Hofmeister wanted to deny those children educational opportunity and even conspired with bureaucrats who filed frivolous lawsuits against those families.”

A new ad released by the Barresi campaign today highlights Hofmeister’s duplicity. In it, Deborah McGrath notes that her son, Michael, has thrived thanks to the scholarships. Michael has Dysgraphia, which impacts motor and information processing skills, and Dyslexia.

“The scholarships made the difference between his needs not being met and a child who believes he can go to college,” McGrath said. “So I would ask Joy Hofmeister, ‘Why?’ Why would you keep a child from having a specialized education to overcome significant obstacles? I’d like to see her try to explain to him why she thinks it is okay to take that away from him.”

The Oklahoma Legislature voted to create the Lindsey Nichole Henry scholarship program, which provides state-funded scholarships to children with special needs. The program allows that small group of children to receive specialized education at private schools. In response, the Jenks and Union school districts filed harassment lawsuits against the parents of children who legally qualified for scholarships.

In 2012, the Oklahoma Supreme Court tossed the schools’ lawsuit out of court. The Supreme Court noted the schools had suffered no losses due to the scholarship program and had no standing to sue. And the court explicitly noted “the parents are clearly not the proper parties” to be sued.

In response, the Oklahoma Legislature later passed a law requiring school districts to pay parents’ legal fees if they engage in similar frivolous litigation in the future.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling made clear that the districts had filed a baseless harassment lawsuit whose only intent was to financially bankrupt the parents of children with special needs.

Yet emails obtained through a Freedom of Information request show Hofmeister conspired with the litigious school officials. Hofmeister participated in email exchanges with Jenks Superintendent Kirby Lehman and others discussing efforts to deprive children with special needs of educational opportunities.

On Nov. 20, 2012, after hearing of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Hofmeister emailed Lehman: “What does this mean? Is it final word, now no more challenge to constitutionality?”

In a March 8, 2013 email, Hofmeister discussed the legislation requiring schools to pay the legal fees of parents who successfully defend themselves against bogus lawsuits. Hofmeister declared, “I’m having a hard time containing my rage. What are these legislators thinking?”

In a March 22, 2013 email exchange, Hofmeister endorsed a proposal to change state law to discourage private schools from accepting children with the scholarships, declaring, “Great idea!” That proposal would have resulted in children being qualified for state scholarships, but unable to use them.

Further evidence of Hofmeister’s hostility to families of children with special needs can be seen in her campaign finance reports. Dozens of Hofmeister’s campaign contributors work for the districts that sued parents or the law firm that represented the schools, while Lehman has personally hosted fundraisers for Hofmeister.

“The emails leave no doubt that Joy Hofmeister supported lawsuit harassment of families whose children have special needs,” Matthews said. “She then opposed legislation to protect those families from financial ruin if they are targeted by frivolous lawsuits. And then she endorsed efforts to gut the scholarship program so children with special needs are left trapped in schools unable to serve them. Her indifference to the very real challenges facing these families is staggering.

“While Janet Barresi is a forceful advocate for parental rights,” Matthews concluded, “Joy Hofmeister believes the wants of government officials should override the real-world needs of children and their parents.”

The Hofmeister emails can be viewed here.

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