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Rehabilitation and Disability Issues
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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:
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
Senate Education Committee
Administrative Rules, Government Oversight and Repealer Committee:
Review of Key Provisions in S.1356 and the SKILLS Act
For more information:
State of Oklahoma
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