Oklahoma Supreme Court strikes down lawsuit challenging voucher program

BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Published: November 21, 2012
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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.