A Week of Gains for School Choice Efforts

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School choice advocates scored major and incremental victories this week in their efforts to secure legal permission to use public education funds to pay for sending students to private schools, including religious ones.

On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program, which allows parents to spend state funds to place disabled children in a private school, is not a violation of the state Constitution’s ban on using public money to benefit any church or religion.

The day before, a state House committee narrowly approved a bill to create education savings accounts, another voucher-type program that, when fully implemented, would allow parents to use state funds to pay for private school costs. It’s not clear if that bill will ultimately pass.

The court’s decision was significant because it clears the way for further growth in use of Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarships and may remove legal barriers to expanded state-paid school voucher programs, such as the education savings accounts.

Supporters of the programs say these changes will increase competition that ultimately improves public schools and will meet the needs of families who have relatively few good choices in neighborhood public schools. Critics say over the long term, the vouchers will erode public education in the state by diverting critically needed funds and will exacerbate inequities because the affluent will benefit from the programs most of all. They say vouchers will likely be used by many families who would have placed their children in private schools any way.

The Supreme Court decision involved a group of taxpayers who sued the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Department of Education and the Board of Education over the scholarship voucher program.

In its decision, the state Supreme Court said because the program gives parents the choice of sending their child to a private religious or non-religious school, it does not violate the state constitution.

The decision, in part, overturned a lower court’s ruling.

“Any scholarship funds deposited to a private sectarian school occur as the sole result of the parent’s independent selection free from state control or direction,” the opinion states. “This independence of choice by the parent breaks the circuit between government and religion.”

Last year, Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, who co-authored the education savings account bill, said a court decision shooting down the Henry scholarship would torpedo his efforts to push through his broader school-choice bill, which would be phased in to cover all students.

Despite the ruling, the way Nelson’s bill passed Monday shows support is not universal.

Nelson’s bill needed intervening votes from House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, and Speaker Pro Tempore Lee Denney, R-Cushing, to undo a negative vote and pass. Both representatives are allowed to cast a vote in any committee.

In the end, four Republicans and four Democrats voted against the bill; nine Republicans voted in favor.

Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said he’s concerned that Nelson’s bill will send public money to families that would have sent their children to private school regardless of the savings account.

“It did get out of committee, and it did need two leadership votes to do so,” Hime said. “It’s encouraging that legislators are still open to discussion and hearing the facts about how detrimental this is to public education.”

Gov. Mary Fallin has already said she will sign an education savings account if the Legislature sends it to her desk.

Fallin first threw her support behind the provisions during her State of the State address on Feb. 1. She renewed that call after Tuesday’s court decision.

“All students learn differently, so each of them should have the opportunity to attend a school that offers the best environment for success,” Fallin said in a written statement. “This can be accomplished through education savings accounts, which I encourage legislators to approve this session, while still protecting school finances.”

Education savings accounts in Oklahoma would be an expansion of the Lindsey Nichole Henry Scholarship, but open to all families, not just those whose children have a disability.

With education savings accounts, state money would be placed in an account for parents to use to pay for private school tuition, tutors or other approved items.

Parents could get between 60 percent and 90 percent of their child’s per-pupil state funding based on their income level.

Similar programs exist in Arizona and Nevada, among other states.