Ten Commandments Amendment Could Propel School Vouchers

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A push to amend the state Constitution to keep a Ten Commandments monument at the State Capitol could also boost efforts to expand school choice vouchers and education savings accounts in Oklahoma.

The future of vouchers and education savings accounts in the state has been murky  since an Oklahoma County District Court judge ruled that the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship violates the state Constitution by diverting public money to private religious institutions.

The scholarships allow parents of special education students to use state money to pay for the cost of sending their child to a private school. The court ruling, made last August, has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.

A decision upholding the lower court could make any future push to approve school choice vouchers and education savings accounts difficult.

Such a decision, however, might be rendered moot if the state overturns the section of the state constitution, known as a Blaine Amendment, that prohibits public money or property from being used for religious purposes.

The Blaine Amendment refers to a post-Civil War amendment proposed to the U.S. Constitution that would have prohibited public money from going to sectarian schools. The amendment failed at the federal level, but more than 35 states added it to their own constitutions. Critics of the amendments point out that the original motive was concern among Protestants that public funding would go to Catholic schools, which had grown as more Catholics entered the country.

Rep. J.P. Jordan, R-Yukon, has filed a resolution calling for a public vote to repeal that section of the Oklahoma Constitution, which the state Supreme Court cited in ordering that the Ten Commandments monument be removed from the Capitol grounds.

The 7-2 decision on June 30 found having the religious monument on state property violated the constitution.

Amber England, executive director of Stand For Children Oklahoma, an education advocacy group, said that while the focus has been on religion and the Ten Commandments, there’s more at stake.

She said Stand For Children Oklahoma does not have a stance on school choice vouchers in Oklahoma, but the outcome for the monument case could affect the state’s education system more broadly.

“I think this could absolutely affect schools,” England said. “I think what we will see, if this amendment is repealed, is another push for vouchers. I think both sides of the aisle will try to use this.”

Bills meant to expand education savings accounts or vouchers to all students in Oklahoma failed to pass this year.

Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma, has said he plans to push the legislation again next session.