Lawsuit Attacks Oklahoma Special-Needs Scholarships

Lawsuit Attacks Oklahoma Special-Needs Scholarships
November 12, 2013

Patrick B. McGuigan

Patrick B. McGuigan writes for Oklahoma Watchdog. (read full bio)

OKLAHOMA CITY — A lawsuit filed in Oklahoma County District Court seeks to have a special-needs scholarship program declared unconstitutional.

The case, Oliver et al. vs. Barresi, would kill benefits allowing Oklahoma’s special-needs students to access systems of their choice. Under the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program, taxpayer dollars follow children to the school of their parents’ preference.

Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment to halt the program immediately and a permanent injunction against its operation, as well as attorneys’ fees.

State Rep. Jason Nelson (R-Oklahoma City) said the lawsuit embodies “ideological hostility to the rights of parents to direct the education of their children.”

Nelson authored the law that created the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program, named for a daughter, who died in her infancy, of former first lady Kim Henry and her husband, former Gov. Brad Henry.

Among other things, the plaintiffs contend the act violates Oklahoma’s constitutional provisions banning the use of government funds to aid any sectarian institution. The lawsuit further asserts the act violates the state constitutional requirement that the legislature establish and maintain a system of free public schools, and a legal ban on making a gift of public funds.

Hypocrisy Among Plaintiffs
The first plaintiff named is a professor at Oral Roberts University, Clarence Oliver Jr., a past education dean at the private university and previously a superintendent in the Broken Arrow School District.

In a statement to Oklahoma Watchdog, Nelson pointed out Oliver is employed at a private institution of higher education that secured more than $380,000 in state scholarship funds through the Oklahoma Tuition Equalization Grant program (OTEG) in 2013-14.

OTEG, Nelson said, is essentially identical to the Henry Scholarship program.

“If the lead plaintiff is so offended by the Lindsey Henry Scholarship Program, why has he not challenged the OTEG law that he benefits from?” Nelson said. “I would be embarrassed.”

Previous Failed Attempt
A previous lawsuit seeking to gut the law was filed directly against parents whose children were benefiting from the Henry Scholarships. The lawsuit by the Jenks and Union public school districts was tossed out 7-2, but the state Supreme Court's language left room for further litigation.

Forty-nine private schools have qualified for the program, which took effect in 2010. Some 250 to 300 children receive the scholarships.

Plaintiffs object because 43 of the institutions eligible to receive funds from the Henry Scholarships benefiting special-needs children are faith-based schools.

“None of [the plaintiffs] is facing the very real circumstances faced by parents of more than 200 children who use the Henry scholarship program because the needs of their children were not being met [in public schools],” Nelson said. “None of the plaintiffs in this case have demonstrated any interest or willingness to address the legitimate concerns expressed about challenges in public schools” these families face. 

Patrick McGuigan (pmcguigan@watchdog.org) is a reporter for Watchdog.org, which originally published this article. Reprinted with permission. Image by Northern Ireland Office

Patrick B. McGuigan

Patrick B. McGuigan writes for Oklahoma Watchdog. (read full bio)