Private schools in Oklahoma that offer tax-credit tuition scholarships are required to have admission policies that prohibit discrimination based on race, color, national origin or disability.
But a check of websites for more than 80 participating private schools by Oklahoma Watch found that just seven post policies saying they won’t discriminate in admissions against children with disabilities.
Several schools are explicit about reserving the right to reject students whose disabilities the schools say they are unable to accommodate.
One of the ways students become eligible for a scholarship is having a disability.
Oklahoma Christian School in Edmond is among the schools that warn they may turn away students with disabilities.
“With respect to students and prospective students with disabilities, it may be necessary for Oklahoma Christian School to decline enrollment to such students because the school does not now or in the future any longer find it economically feasible to provide educational, athletic or other co-curricular programs which would meet the needs of students with certain disabilities,” the school’s website says.
The omission of disability from policies doesn’t necessarily mean a private school discriminates against all disabled students. But legal experts and others say the practice potentially runs afoul of state law.
“It is going against the spirit of the law,” said Lee Denney, who as a state legislator authored the bill in 2011 that created the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program.
“We want this for all kids,” said Denney, who is now state director for rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Every student ought to be on equal footing.”
Tuition scholarship proponents say schools have a legal right to decline to accept special-needs students whom they cannot properly educate for lack of existing resources and training.
Scholarship Program Grows
The scholarship program, which is a school-choice measure, is growing in size and popularity.
Statewide numbers for the last few years aren’t available. But in 2017, the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, the largest of 10 scholarship-granting organizations, received $5.1 million in donations from individual and corporate taxpayers, up from $3.4 million in 2016.
The program works by giving taxpayers a tax credit for donations to nonprofits like the Opportunity Scholarship Fund. These organizations then direct the funds to private schools minus up to 10 percent for administering the fund. The schools use the money to offset the cost of tuition for students they select based on state criteria. More than 90 schools participate and most are religious.
Having a disability is one of three ways students can qualify for scholarship dollars. Most students, though, qualify by family income, with the cap being three times the limit for free or reduced-price lunch eligibility ($136,530 this year for a family of four). Students can also qualify if they live in the attendance zone of a school designated as “in need of improvement” by the state.
Taxpayers receive a credit, which is more valuable than a deduction because it reduces dollar for dollar the state income tax they owe. Taxpayers can also claim a federal charitable deduction for the donation, which means in some circumstances, they will actually make a profit.
Families can earmark their donation for a specific school, but not a particular student.
There are limits on the credits: 50 percent for one-time donations and 75 percent for a two-year commitment. Businesses can receive up to $100,000 in tax credits; taxpayers filing jointly can claim up to $2,000, and individual filers up to $1,000.
The program is different from the state’s Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship, which provides a state-funded voucher to parents of children with disabilities to pay for tuition at a private school.
Use of tax-credit scholarships is expected to increase in the 10 states that offer them because of passage of the new federal tax law. That laws caps the state and local tax deduction on federal income tax, creating an incentive for wealthy taxpayers to give more to programs like tax-credit scholarship funds.
Policies vs. Law
Federal law prohibits nonprofit, tax-exempt private schools from discriminating in admissions on the basis of race, color or national origin. Oklahoma law goes further for the tax-credit scholarship program, requiring disability.
Some schools were concerned that participating in the program meant they would have to admit any student with a disability, even if they didn’t have the resources to serve them.
The Opportunity Scholarship Fund board disagrees and advises schools that they don’t have to add special education services that they don’t already provide. Schools may lack sufficient technology, equipment, training or resources, said Robert Sellers, director of the organization.
“A family may still apply for enrollment at these schools. However, if the school is unable to meet the student’s educational needs, it is up to the family to determine whether they will enroll their student or find another school,” Sellars said.
Attorney Brady Henderson, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, doesn’t agree.
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act applies to a majority of private schools, and it requires “reasonable accommodations,” including modifications in policies and practices, unless those would fundamentally alter the school’s program.
Henderson said schools of choice, private as well as charter, tend to have smaller proportions of students with disabilities, suggesting there is some discrimination happening, even if it’s subtle.
He said it would be one thing if the issue involved a private school at a church that received no state or federal dollars. “But when you have pipelines of public money going into them, it changes the optics,” he said.
(School-choice proponents argue – and courts have agreed – that the tax-credit scholarships don’t involve public money because the funds are not controlled by the state, rather by parents. Critics say the money is public taxes owed to the state but is redirected through nonprofits to private schools.)
First Words for Parents
Even if a school will accept some students with special needs, its stated policy could be a deterrent.
Nondiscrimination policies are typically published on a school’s website and in the student handbook or application for admission.
Parkview Adventist Academy, a 52-student school in northeast Oklahoma City, helped 10 families with its scholarship donations last year. Tuition averages $450 a month.
Principal Annette Park, when asked about the school’s nondiscrimination policy, said the school has no intention of discriminating against any student who applies for admission, and the school has previously accepted students with learning disabilities.
But parents visiting the school’s website will find this statement: “(Parkview) is not equipped to offer special education and is therefore unable to accept pupils who have serious scholastic or behavioral problems, or who are mentally handicapped.”
Similar statements were found on several scholarship schools’ websites. Most schools’ nondiscrimination policies include race, color and national or ethnic origin, but exclude disability.
Some schools go beyond the legal minimum and also prohibit discrimination based on gender, age or religion. Riverfield Country Day School, a nonreligious private school in Tulsa, even includes ancestry, sexual orientation, and marital or family status. Other schools specialize in serving students with disabilities.
It’s unknown whether any complaints of discrimination have been filed. The Opportunity Scholarship Fund says it hasn’t received any complaints of discrimination from students, potential applicants or parents. Neither has the state Department of Education, although it has no oversight or involvement in the program.
Denney said if schools are excluding students with disabilities, they could face a lawsuit.
“Every school should be taking these students. These students have a right given by our constitution to be educated,” Denney said.