In Oklahoma, there has been an ongoing battle over school vouchers. It is specifically over the Lindsey Nichole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act. The public schools aren’t complying with it. A series of lawsuits followed. Now, a judge has ruled that the special needs scholarships law is unconstitutional.
There isn’t one, federal, rule that defines precisely how each state is required to deal with issues relating to school vouchers for students who have special needs. Therefore, each state must figure that out for itself. Sometimes, things work well. Other times, things result in a series of lawsuits.
In Oklahoma, there is a law called the Lindsey Nichole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act. It was signed into law around two years ago. This law helped parents of children who had special needs to be able to send their children to private schools using state funds.
In other words, the funding for the scholarships would come from the funds that are set aside for public schools. Typically, school voucher programs are designed so that students who have special needs, that are not being met at the public school, can afford to move to a private school that can better meet those needs.
Several school districts in Oklahoma chose not to comply with this law. At first, the Broken Arrow Public school district chose not to comply, but later, changed its mind.
The Jenks school district, and the Union school district, filed a lawsuit against a group of parents (who, presumably, were interested in having their child use a voucher to help afford tuition at a private school). The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the Lindsey Nichole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act.
Lawyer Jerry Richardson represented the school districts. He argued that the law violated the state constitution in many ways, but particularly that it violated a provision that prohibits state money from funding sectarian institutions.
A school that is a sectarian institution is one that is adheres to one particular religious belief. The school could be Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Islamic, Christian, Jewish, or other religions. In Oklahoma, 38 of the 40 schools that can receive the scholarship funding are Christian schools.
Lawyer Eric Baxter represented the parents. He is the senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. He argued that using state scholarships to enable students to attend private elementary or secondary schools is no different from the scholarships that are used to help college students attend religious universities. He also argued that the state scholarships are not specific to one religion or denomination, and that the schools are not religious institutions.
District Judge Rebecca Nightingale presided over this case. She decided to strike down the Lindsey Nichole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act. The judge said that requiring public school districts to fund private school scholarships for special needs students violates the Oklahoma Constitution. It is expected that this case will be appealed.
Image by Wesley Fryer on Flickr