Oklahoma’s Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities provide students with special needs, in foster care, and those adopted out of state custody school vouchers to attend a private school of their parents’ choice. The program was enacted and launched in 2010. Students must have or qualify for an Individualized Education Plan or an Individualized Service Plan to participate. On this page, you’ll find more information about the program, including funding, eligibility, and legal history.
Oklahoma students with special needs currently in public school, as well as foster care students and students adopted out of state custody, are eligible to receive a voucher to attend a private school chosen by their parents.
The voucher is worth the state and local dollars spent on the child in his or her public school or the chosen private school’s tuition and fees, whichever is less. Foster care students and those in state placements receive scholarships worth the per-pupil state aid plus any applicable weights (such as those for gifted students or English-language learners).
Vouchers may be used for a private school’s tuition, various fees and special education programs and therapies offered by the private school to students with disabilities. The child’s resident school district can keep up to 2.5 percent of the funds for administrative purposes, and the state department of education may retain an equivalent amount for the same purposes.
Any student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or Individualized Service Plan (ISP) in effect and who either spent the prior year attending an Oklahoma public school or is the child of an active-duty member of the armed forces who has been stationed in Oklahoma is eligible. Students in out-of-home placement or who were adopted out of state custody, both of which are eligible for the program, are also exempt from the prior public schooling requirement. After receiving a voucher, the child will continue to qualify each year through high school graduation or until such time as the child would return to a public school. Students who were previously provided services under an Individual Family Service Plan through the SoonerStart program and, during transition, were evaluated and determined to be eligible for school district services no longer need to have spent the prior school year in attendance at a public school to be eligible.
Oklahoma’s voucher program for children with special needs earns high marks for funding. The program also avoids unnecessary regulations: Private schools must meet the state’s accreditation requirements, demonstrate fiscal soundness, adhere to nondiscrimination laws, follow health and safety codes, be academically accountable to parents and be in operation for at least one year before accepting students. The only shortcoming of Oklahoma’s voucher program is its obvious limitation in terms of student eligibility. Given its other strengths, Oklahoma should consider expanding the program’s eligibility pool to include all students.
Okla. Stat. tit. 70 §§ 13-101.1 and 101.2
On November 20, 2012, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma dismissed on procedural grounds the Jenks Public Schools system’s lawsuit against parents using Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships, stating the school districts do not have standing as Oklahoma taxpayers to sue under the state’s constitution and that parents were the wrong parties to sue. Ind. Sch. Dist. No. 5 of Tulsa Co. v. Spry, 2012 OK 98, 292 P.3d 19 (2012)
On February 16, 2016, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the state’s voucher program is constitutional in a 9-0 decision with one concurring opinion. Several factors that were key to the court’s decision included 1) participation in the voucher program is voluntary; 2) a parent’s choice of school is strictly independent; 3) education funding flows from the state to the parent; 4) the program itself is neutral regarding religion; 5) any benefit to a private school is derived from the parent’s choice, not the state; 6) there is no adverse impact on the ability of religious schools to act independently of state control; 7) there is a substantial benefit to the state when a child uses a voucher; it is not a gift. Citing the landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case (see Ohio | Cleveland Scholarship Program), the court said, “When the parents and not the government are the ones determining which private school offers the best learning environment for their child, the circuit between government and religion is broken.” Oliver v. Hofmeister, 368 P.3d 1270 (Okla. 2016)
This case began in October 2013, when 12 plaintiffs renewed the 2012 legal challenge, this time with proper litigants. In a written opinion, Oliver v Barresi, No. CV-2013-2072 (September 10, 2014), the Oklahoma County District Court ruled the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities program violated Article 2, Section 5—the Oklahoma Constitution’s Blaine amendment—only insofar as the program allows public funds to be used to pay tuition at private, sectarian religious schools; paying tuition at private, non-sectarian religious schools was deemed permissible by this narrow ruling.
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