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Oklahoma Supreme Court strikes down lawsuit challenging voucher program

BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Published: November 21, 2012

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.”