OPPOSITION to state scholarships for children with special needs may have a far-reaching, negative impact. That fact is becoming clear through the filings of those seeking to submit legal briefs in support of the scholarship law.
The ongoing court battle centers on a lawsuit filed by the Jenks and Union school districts against parents of children with special needs who got aid under the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act. The law allows the use of state funds (already designated for a child's education) to pay for tuition at a private school that caters to those with special needs.
Jenks and Union officials argue the scholarship program amounts to government support of religion because some participating schools have religious affiliations. The case is proceeding through the courts on appeal and Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry is among those seeking to argue in support of the law.
In his request, Henry's attorney notes that students at OCU, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, are eligible to participate in the Oklahoma Tuition Equalization Grant program, a state scholarship program for students of limited means. OTEG recipients' average household income was $24,430 in the 2010-11 academic year (for dependent students). That year, 2,214 low-income students attending 13 Oklahoma colleges with religious affiliations (including the University of Tulsa) got $3.8 million in OTEG scholarships.
Henry's request to file an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief states, “Amicus is deeply interested in the outcome of this litigation because the structure of the OTEG program is nearly identical to that of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program for Students With Disabilities ... Both programs provide state-funded scholarships to eligible students who attend private institutions, a substantial majority of which are religiously-affiliated institutions. The central purpose of both programs is to provide essential services to students by facilitating, in a world of scarce resources, the use of all appropriate state educational institutions, public or private, to provide students the services they require. Both programs rely on students and parents to choose the institution the student will attend and then apply to the state for scholarships to be applied to the tuition charges at the institutions they have chosen.”
If courts strike down the special-needs scholarship program, Henry's request says, “amicus is justifiably concerned that invalidation of the Henry scholarship will threaten the legal viability of the OTEG scholarship.”
Henry believes OTEG and the special-needs scholarship law are constitutional. His opinion should carry considerable weight. Henry served 16 years as a judge of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a term as attorney general of Oklahoma.
Jenks and Union officials argue that special-needs scholarships deprive public schools of money. Ironically, if they succeed in court, they may force more funding to be shifted away from K-12 schools and to state colleges. The Oklahoma Independent Colleges and Universities estimates OTEG has saved state government more than $50 million since 2003. Had all OTEG recipients attended public universities, the state would have actually spent more subsidizing their education.
The two districts may think they're aiming only at children with special needs, but their lawsuit threatens countless Oklahomans. If Jenks and Union “win” in court, not only will students with special needs be denied educational opportunities, so will many prospective college students — including graduates of Jenks and Union schools.