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Legislative Update

Rehabilitation and Disability Issues
November 8, 2013

National News

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Disability organizations throughout the country continue to push for U.S. Senate ratification of the international treaty known as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD for short. The treaty sets standards for the treatment of nearly 1 billion people worldwide who are living with some kind of disability.  Last year the Senate considered the treaty bur failed to get the two-thirds vote needed for ratification. The Convention had been signed by 155 nations and ratified by 126. The Senate’s failure to approve the treaty in 2012 was attributed to concerns voiced by some Senators that it poses a threat to U.S. sovereignty and could lead to UN interference in domestic affairs. Treaty supporters stressed that it requires no changes in U.S. law, that a committee created by the treaty to make recommendations has no power to change laws and that the treaty cannot serve as a basis for a lawsuit in U.S. courts.  

Now the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to reconsider the disabilities treaty. It has held a November 5th hearing on the subject, and plans to hold another. Disability groups have scheduled a national Call-In Day on Tuesday, November 12th, and are encouraging people with disabilities to call members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to express their views on the treaty. Key members of the Committee are Senator Corker, 202-224-3344, and Senator Menendez, 202-224-4744.

More information on the treaty can be found at:
United States International Council on Disabilities,
www.usicd.org
www.disabilitytreaty.org
Read the treaty:  
http://www.usicd.org/index.cfm/convention

Workforce – Rehab Act Reauthorization

The Senate Workforce – Rehab Act bill, S. 1356, is still awaiting a full Senate vote. The measure was quickly passed by the Senate HELP Committee last summer, with little opportunity for the rehabilitation or disability communities to absorb the bill’s content or comment on provisions. Bill sponsors hoped to bring it before the full Senate in September, but consideration has been sidetracked by other important Congressional business. It remains uncertain whether S. 1356 will reach the Senate floor this year or be put off until early next year.

If S. 1356 is passed by the Senate in its current form, it will be sent to a joint Senate-House conference committee for final writing. Last spring the House approved its version of Workforce – Rehab Act reauthorization. That bill is known as the SKILLS Act. Both bills have provisions of concern to rehabilitation supporters and disability groups. Each also contains some elements that are favored by varied constituencies.

If the bills eventually go to a conference committee, it will be important for Congress members to hear from those concerned about what provisions are helpful, and which are harmful. A review of key provisions in each bill is provided at the end of the Update.

Proposed bills on education of children with visual and hearing disabilities

The Alice Cogswell Act draft legislation has been developed by the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf (CEASD). The bill would amend IDEA in ways that would "promote and better ensure delivery of high quality special education and related services to students who are deaf or hard of hearing." The bill addresses students' language and communication needs, state plans, the continuum of alternative placements, qualified personnel, natural environments, and other issues.

CEASD is now discussing this bill with stakeholders and other organizations and plans to share it with members of Congress. Information on the draft legislation is available from Barbara Raimondo at baraimondo@me.com or from http://www.ceasd.org/child-first/alice-cogswell.

The Anne Sullivan Macy Act affirms that blind children need Braille and other specialized services as well as things like career education. The draft bill also requires a better count of kids with visual impairments who are labeled in other disability categories under IDEA rules. The legislation would also say that states should have a school for the blind and a spectrum of educational options.

The American Foundation for the Blind and AER have been involved in drafting the ASM legislation. It has not yet been introduced but proponents are seeking support from members of Congress.  

Some say the provisions of ASM already exist under IDEA. Supporters counter that IDEA in its application does not go far enough and there are still many obstacles to getting appropriate high quality educational services to all blind and visually impaired students.  

Supporters are saying to Congress that “integration” is not just giving a child a device; it is the array of specialized services that is critical for equal educational opportunity and preparing blind students for working. The bill aims to add capacity to what is now provided under IDEA.  

State Interim Legislative Studies

Interim Studies on Pension Reform

House Study 3012 by Rep. Randy McDaniel (R-OKC) and Senate Study 16 by Senator Brinkley (R-Tulsa) are looking at the status of the 7 Oklahoma pension systems and considering reforms. The biggest of the pension systems are Teacher’s Retirement and the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS). All the state’s pension systems are currently defined benefit plans, which guarantee the employee or teacher a fixed benefit based on factors such as length of service and salary history. Taken together, the state pension systems currently have an unfunded liability of $11.5 billion. This is down from a high of $16 billion two years ago, mainly due to recent legislation that prevents the systems from giving retirees a cost-of-living increase unless it is determined to be fully funded.  

Legislators are also concerned with the funded ratio of each plan. Teachers’ Retirement is currently funded at 57%, up from 54% last year, and the plan is expected to be fully funded in 17 years, an improvement over the 22 years projected earlier this year. The OPERS system has a funded ratio of 81.6%, up slightly from last year.  

The main proposals for pension reform include shifting to a defined contribution system for new public employees (with the exception of public safety employees), and consolidating the administration of the 7 plans into one pension system board.  

Proponents of these reforms say moving to a defined contribution system will reduce what the state has to pay in the future for employee retirement, relieve the burden on the taxpayer, improve chances to increase the state’s bond rating, and save some money through administrative efficiencies. Critics say moving to a defined contribution system will mean less reliable and smaller pensions for state employees of the future, and they express concern about how the state will manage to pay for the defined benefits due to current active members on retirement. The idea of merging the pension boards has also come under fire from several quarters.  

The State Auditor has told legislators this is a complicated issue; we can have the same problems with a defined contribution plan as with the benefit plan - it is not unique to defined benefit plans. Rather, he argues, it is other practices that really affect the health of the pension systems - like not paying the ARC (Actuarially Required Contribution) annually, giving COLAs without paying for them and raising benefits without paying for them. These practices of past legislatures are what have led to the unfunded pension liabilities of today, he claims. He says the current investment returns of the plans are good.

This debate will continue as pension reform legislation is introduced next session.

State Employee Compensation

House Study 3009 by Rep. Leslie Osborn (R-Mustang) will take a comprehensive look at state employee compensation and consider a change to a performance based system. The study will utilize the Governor's remuneration study results to look at options for a complete revamp of how State employees are compensated. The first scheduled meeting of this study committee is November 19, 9 a.m. in Room 432A at the State Capitol. Also considered at this meeting will be House Study 3087, by Joe Dorman (D-Rush Springs), on State employee/educator pay and benefits compared to private sector jobs.  Live meeting audio will be broadcast on the House website at www.okhouse.gov at the link for Live House Meeting Proceedings (click on 432A).

Rethinking Special Education, Competency and Transition Task Force

The Rethinking Special Education Task Force was created by legislation last year and is chaired by Rep. Jason Nelson. R-OKC. (NOTE: Nelson chairs the House A&B Subcommittee that deals with DRS matters.) Senator Halligan, R-Stillwater, is also on the TF. (Halligan chairs the Senate A&B Education Subcommittee.) The DRS Transition Coordinator is a member of the Task Force.  

In meetings thus far, Rep. Nelson has brought the following information and ideas before the Task Force:  

  • 97,000 Oklahoma students are in special education.
  • Our current special education system is not sufficient to help kids in a timely way.
  • Nelson hopes the TF can come up with a better statewide special education structure that will improve things for students, parents and schools.
  • The Task Force provides an opportunity to talk about creating a statewide system that could absorb legal liability on behalf of local schools while supplying expertise that is hard for small schools to hire or keep.
  • Nelson asks TF members what a quality special education system should look like – how should success be measured. Are there standards or best practices for special education?  If not, what should the standards be?
  • The Task Force is asked to consider the concept of regional or centralized pools of expertise that could be shared with schools as needed, that will give schools flexibility, and that can increase available expertise through association with university programs.
  • The legislature may need to look at adjusting the weights in the State Aid Formula to ensure appropriate funding for special needs students.

Rep. Nelson indicates he would like the TF to recommend a big picture, structural solution to improve special education in OK, but it is also possible to move slowly, perhaps addressing small fixes this coming legislative session.

Interim Studies on School Testing

Several interim legislative studies this fall examine school testing issues including the amount of testing now being required, the way tests are taken, how results are used, the effects of frequent and/or high stakes testing on students and teachers, the costs involved, and how the testing structure impacts curriculum and what gets taught in school. Studies of particular interest from the disability perspective include:

House Study 3045, requested by Rep. Gus Blackwell. This was combined with Senate Study 18 by Senators Ford, Halligan and Stanislawski. The focus is common education testing. Study committee members are those serving on the House Common Education Committee and the Senate Education Committee. Presentations and discussions have centered on the claim that we are over-testing students, the possibility of using ACT test products to replace much of the tests we currently use, how our current testing regimen and requirements affect special needs students, teaching to the test, and other issues. This committee has heard from teachers with concerns that our current testing system is not fair for students with disabilities. (Note: In recent years disability groups have raised many concerns about educational testing accessibility, allowable accommodations, and the connection between school testing and future academic and work options for students with disabilities.)

House Study 3113 requested by Rep. Blackwell address the Common Core standards adopted by Oklahoma, and looks at efficacy, validity of the standards and cost to implement. The study committee is the House Administrative Rules Committee. This committee has heard from presenters who are critical of Common Core standards and concerned about over-testing students. Presenters have suggested that excessive use of standardized tests can discourage individualized approaches to meeting the special needs of some students, including students with disabilities.

House Study 3065 by Rep. Jadine Nollan examines the implications of high-stakes testing for special needs students and will evaluate the State of Oklahoma’s testing practices in comparison to other states. This study committee has not met yet.

Views on school testing issues for students with disabilities can be shared with interim study committee members by emailing them. To find House member contact information go to www.okhouse.gov and Senator information is available at www.oksenate.gov.

Links to a list of members of the study committees:

House Common Education Committee
http://www.okhouse.gov/Committees/CommitteeMembers.aspx?CommID=175&SubCommID=0

Senate Education Committee
http://www.oksenate.gov/Committees/standingcommittees.aspx

Administrative Rules, Government Oversight and Repealer Committee:
http://www.okhouse.gov/Committees/CommitteeMembers.aspx?CommID=172&SubCommID=0

Review of Key Provisions in S.1356 and the SKILLS Act

S.1356

  • Splits up Rehab Act programs.
  • Sends VR to Labor Department, Independent Living to HHS, and NIDRR (research) to HHS.
  • The transfer of VR from Education to Labor will disconnect VR from rehabilitation expertise and place it in a department with no rehabilitation experience and a scant record of serving people with severe disabilities.
  • The Secretary of Labor would write the regulations for Rehab.
  • The new name for RSA would be Disability Employment Services and Supports Administration (DESSA).
  • The Commissioner would still be a President’s appointment but would not have to have rehabilitation experience or knowledge.
  • Rehab would be put under ODEP (the Office of Disability Employment Policy) – a tiny division that has never administered direct service programs.
  • Placement in Labor ties VR closer into the generic One-Stop culture, where the focus is on the general population and specialized approaches tend to be absent.
  • The bill mandates state VR programs to expand and intensify services to youth transitioning to post-secondary life, without added funding to do so.
  • Youth are defined as age 14-24.
  • Creates a new category of Pre-Employment Transition, for youth age 14 up with significant disabilities. For those in Supported Employment, VR would pay 4 years extended services.
  • Makes states set aside 15% of basic VR funds for Transition, limiting administrative spending to 5% of this.  
  • Requires all VR offices have Transition Coordinator positions with support staff –  administrative expenses which would mostly have to come out of basic VR funds, beyond the 15% set-aside.
  • These provisions effectively make Transition a priority for VR spending. As a result, some state VR programs may have reduced funds for serving adults with severe disabilities.
  • The bill subjects VR to the same performance standards and measures used for Workforce programs for the non-disabled public. There are concerns this will not accurately reflect VR performance, will be costly to implement, and could discourage service to persons with the most significant disabilities.
  • To implement use of common performance measures, VR would have to retool data systems at great cost. Adjustments in standards to reflect different conditions for the VR population would entail much staff work, negotiation and approval by Labor.
  • VR would have to pay for 2 years of extended services for Supported Employment clients, instead of the current flexible 18 months. This would be 4 years for youth.
  • The bill de-emphasizes rehabilitation throughout.
  • Rehab credentials for VR staff are weakened.
  • There is concern that features in S.1356 will reduce access to the highly specialized services required to remove employment barriers for people with severe disabilities.Positive features in the bill are business relations emphasis, in-demand occupations emphasis, and a focus on career exploration, work experience and internships for youth.

Skills Act

  • H.R. 803 by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC)
  • Consolidates 36 federal employment programs, not VR, which remains a mandatory partner, however. Although VR remains a distinct program, various provisions in the bill tie VR more closely into the generic Workforce system.
  • Requires common data reporting and performance measures for all Workforce partners.
  • Increases business representation on Workforce state and local boards. Boards would be 2/3 business representatives. Partner members like VR are not required on the Boards.
  • Emphasizes job training that is responsive to in-demand occupations and business needs.  
  • In HR-803 VR remains a distinct program but is moved more closely into the generic Workforce system.
  • Partners must make all their “work-ready” services available at One-Stops. It is uncertain whether this translates to co-location.
  • Lets Governors decide what funds each partner must contribute to the One-Stops. The Governor can require partners contribute funds above those set in any infrastructure formula. Thus VR funds could be tapped for various One-Stop expenses.
  • One-Stops and training providers would have to meet standards, be certified and re-certified every 3 years, with focus on meeting standards of program integration, as well as other goals.
  • It is unclear if VR training providers would have to meet training provider criteria set by the Governor.
  • Makes RSA commissioner a Director, no longer a Presidential appointment.
  • Requires at least 10% of a state’s VR basic funds must be for expanding Transition.
  • The Comprehensive Needs Assessment must add a focus on Transition needs and the performance of existing services in meeting those needs.
  • Supported Employment title VI grants are eliminated.
  • States must set aside one-half of 1% of their basic VR funds for grants to for-profit businesses to do job readiness, training and placement.
  • Eliminates in-service training of VR personnel as a training grant purpose.
  • Special concerns for Rehab:  with VR melded more closely into the generic Workforce system in a number of ways – there is concern for the future of some key features and resources that support successful rehabilitation, including:
    • informed client choice
    • individualized plans and services
    • specialized services
    • information accessibility
    • communication accessibility
    • physical accessibility
    • availability of specialized staff
    • staff and system understanding of disability
    • leaching away of VR funds for non-VR use
    • cherry-picking
    • reduced help for severely disabled
    • increased diversion of staff time to bureaucratic functions, away from direct service delivery

For more information:
Jean Jones
Legislative Information Representative
jjones@okdrs.gov