The Oklahoma Supreme Court tossed out a lawsuit Tuesday challenging a state scholarship program that uses public education funds to help send special-needs children to private schools.
The head of public schools in Oklahoma called it a victory for education choice in the state, while the two complaining school districts said they will regroup and decide whether to continue to challenge the program.
The high court voted 7-2 that the Jenks and Union public school districts lacked standing to challenge the Lindsey Nichole Henry scholarship program for students with disabilities.
The justices also ruled that parents of developmentally disabled students should not have been targeted as defendants in the lawsuit.
“What the Supreme Court basically told the school districts is that it's none of your business,” said state Rep. Jason Nelson, co-author of legislation creating the scholarship program. “Which is what I and a number of other people have been saying from the beginning.”
Chief Justice Steven Taylor and Justice James Edmondson disagreed with the majority, saying they were prepared to proceed with the case.
The ruling reverses a decision by a Tulsa district judge that ruled the program unconstitutional.
“From the beginning, we believed it was improper for these school districts to sue the parents of special needs children simply for following the law,” Attorney General Scott Pruitt said. “We are pleased Oklahoma's Supreme Court agreed and ruled that these school districts lacked standing to make their claims against the children's families. The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Act is the law and districts must follow the law.”
Kirby Lehman, superintendent of Jenks Public Schools, and Cathy Burden, superintendent of Union Public Schools, issued a joint statement saying the high court ruling did not address the constitutionality of vouchers in the state.
“Rather, the court refused to rule on the constitutional issues solely on the basis of who can sue and who can be sued when challenging the constitutionality of a law,” they said. “This decision clearly leaves open the constitutional issues raised by both school districts. Two of the justices dissented. … Unfortunately, the majority chose to not address the constitutional issues.”
The statement concluded by saying the Union and Jenks school superintendents and school boards will review the Supreme Court decision and make a determination whether to pursue other action.
The Jenks and Union school districts argued that the scholarship program, created through legislation passed and signed into law in 2010, was unconstitutional because it violated several provisions of the state constitution. The program allows the state to set aside public education money to fund a portion of students' private-school tuition.
Vice Chief Justice Tom Colbert said the school districts lacked standing to sue parents of students over the scholarship program. Standing is defined as whether a party in a lawsuit has sufficient interest to obtain judicial resolution of the controversy, Colbert wrote.
The money at issue is not taxes from taxpayers in the districts' county revenue stream that a county assessor is improperly reducing or disposing of, but part of the Legislature's general grant to the districts through the state Education Department, Colbert wrote.
“Because the school districts are not the ones charged with the duty to provide free public education, the Legislature's withholding of certain funds, even if it is unconstitutional, does not violate a constitutionally protected interest of the school districts themselves, because they are merely the Legislature's vehicle,” he wrote.
State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi said Tuesday she applauded the Supreme Court's decision to discontinue the challenge to the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarship program.
“This is a victory for students with disabilities throughout our state and for their families,” Barresi said. “This also is a victory for education choice in Oklahoma.”
Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, said he is glad the high court's decision basically means the school districts' actions were without merit.
“As recently as last week, I received an emotional email from a parent who detailed how being able to use the scholarship has changed their child's life for the better,” he said. “I've never doubted that we were right on the law and it's nice to have the confirmation of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. This is a program that saves the public school system money while benefiting children with special needs by giving them more educational options that meet their unique needs. Today's ruling will allow these families to breathe a sigh of relief after months of uncertainty.”
The high court ruling is the latest in nearly two years of legal maneuvering over the scholarship program.
Twenty parents sued three Tulsa-area school districts in April 2011 in federal court and in September 2011 the Jenks and Union school districts filed a countersuit in Tulsa County District Court to challenge the constitutionality of the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarship program on behalf of all school districts. Their suit named the parents of several students in each district who participated in the federal lawsuit.
The federal lawsuit filed by a group of parents was dismissed in November 2011 at the parents' request.
In March, Tulsa County District Judge Rebecca Nightingale struck down the scholarship law, ruling it unconstitutional. Opposing attorneys filed court papers to keep the law intact until the appeals process is complete; in June attorneys for parents of special-needs children filed a brief with the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
“It is not an anti-public school, it is a pro-child program that saves the state money,” Nelson said. “What we're actually paying out is about $120,000 less than what we were spending on this group of kids. So that money goes back into the school funding formula to benefit the rest of the kids in the state.”