Oklahoma Judge Strikes Down Vouchers for Special Needs Students

Bernard Jones

Oklahoma County District Court Judge Bernard Jones has ruled that a portion of a law that would allow public funds to be used to send special needs students to private schools to be unconstitutional. The problem: 44 of the 51 private schools are religious schools.

The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act, passed in 2010, provided vouchers that allowed students with special needs to attend one of these 51 private schools. In November, 2012, a legal challenge from some of the school districts was thrown out by Oklahoma’s Supreme Court, who ruled that school districts did not have the legal standing of taxpayers. Last October, twelve individual educators and parents filed suit again, and Judge Jones ruled in their favor.

Judge Jones is the second district court judge to strike down the law as unconstitutional. In March, 2012, Tulsa County District Court judge Rebecca Nightingale invalidated the law in a different lawsuit.

The October, 2014, lawsuit contended, “the Oklahoma Constitution only authorizes the Legislature to fund ‘a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the state may be educated.’“ Since the Oklahoma Supreme Court has already ruled that when a parent wants to send a child to a public secular or religious school, that parent is “faced with the necessity of assuming the financial burden which the choice entails,” that ruling and the voucher system to private religious schools cannot co­exist.

There is also another problem. Out of the 51 schools named, only six of them are specifically designed to handle students with special needs.

State Attorney General Scott Pruitt said that he would appeal the ruling, which says that public money cannot be used to send students with special needs to religious schools. “Prohibiting the use of Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarship funds from being used to send students with disabilities to religiously affiliated schools would require the state to discriminate against those schools,” he said in a written statement.

The judge’s order has been stayed during the appeal process, which means that, for now, the scholarship program remains as it is.

Photo Credit: The Oklahoma Farm Report

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