For more than a decade, Oklahoma taxpayers have subsidized private school tuition for students whose disabilities made learning in public school difficult. And, until recently, the state failed to collect even the most basic information on those students’ disabilities, gender, race, grade and their families’ income. That is changing.
The state Education Department recently started gathering and posting more information about those students to comply with a 2019 law.
To fully comply, the department is amending its application to the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program for the 2021-22 school year to ask applicants demographic questions and provide a clearer picture of participating students. Applications processed before the new application is ready are receiving a supplemental data request form, a spokeswoman for the department said.
The law requires the department to report certain demographic information about participants annually. After a request from Oklahoma Watch, the department was only able to provide data for about 170 of the 996 students who received scholarships through the program in 2019-20 because the data was limited to the students who had previously attended public schools.
Beginning this year, all required data will be reported on the department’s website by Oct. 1 for each previous school year, a department spokeswoman said.
Calls for more public accountability have increased as school choice programs in Oklahoma expand. The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program awarded a combined $7 million in tuition payments to 996 students in 2019-20, a $1.2 million increase from the year before.
And this year the Legislature passed a major expansion of another program, the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Scholarship Fund, which gives taxpayers tax credits for donations to public and private schools. Individuals, married couples and corporations donate to a scholarship granting organization or foundation, which then provides the funds to a private or public school, minus an administrative fee.
A new law raising the annual tax credit cap to $50 million also requires more public reporting of the funds.
And yet, those efforts still fall short of what other states report. For instance, Oklahoma doesn’t require any academic data such as graduation rates or test scores.
Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, who authored the 2019 bill on the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program, said he wanted to improve transparency since it’s funded by public tax dollars. “We wanted to make sure there’s no disparities and it’s fair,” he said.
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That’s why schools are now required to report the number of scholarships approved and denied. If a school denied a disproportionate number of applications, that could raise concerns.
That data, posted last week, shows there were 1,063 student applications in 2019-20. Of those, 26 were denied and 93 were withdrawn.
Examining students’ race, gender and ethnicity data is another way to check for disparities, he said.
The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program was established by the Legislature in 2010 to subsidize private school tuition for students with disabilities and was named after former Governor Brad Henry’s daughter, who died of a rare neuromuscular disease as an infant. The legislature expanded eligibility to foster care children and children adopted out of state custody beginning in 2017-18.
Funding for the program totaled $31 million between 2010 and 2020 and comes out of the Education Department’s state appropriation.
To participate, schools have to be approved by the state Education Department but the requirements are minimal. There are now 70 approved schools and most are religious.
Special Care, a private Oklahoma City school that educates and provides other services to children from 6 weeks old through kindergarten, got accredited as a private school to help its families qualify for scholarships, said Pam Newby, executive director and co-founder. About two-thirds of the children who attend Special Care have disabilities and many are medically fragile, requiring care that’s very expensive to provide.
“(Lindsey Nicole Henry) helps us because we’re a nonprofit and we have to fundraise to pay for highly-trained staff, therapists and equipment,” Newby said. “Most of our parents can’t afford private school tuition at all.”
Fewer Requirements Than Other States
Schools in the program have to be accredited and demonstrate fiscal soundness and meet a few other criteria, such as prohibiting discrimination on the basis of “race, color or national origin.”
An attempt by the Education Department to add more protected classes of students (sex, disability, religion, sexual orientation and status as a parent) to the anti-discrimination clause was invalidated in December by an attorney general opinion.
Oklahoma’s school-choice programs had fewer requirements than other states, particularly on public reporting and transparency measures, according to a 2020 Education Week survey of 29 states with school-choice programs.
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Seventeen of the states require the schools to participate in a state or national student assessment; in eight states, the schools must report the results. Six states require schools to report high school graduation rates. Oklahoma doesn’t require any testing of private school students, including those receiving vouchers.
The director of one participating school said adding academic requirements like in other states would take away some of the flexibility of being a private school.
“The more they add, the more difficult it might be to make sure we’re meeting everyone’s needs,” said Clair Bartley, executive director at Paths to Independence, a private school in Bartlesville that educates students with autism.
She said the school evaluates each student’s growth based on an individualized plan, and while some students take the ACT or benchmark tests, for other students, it wouldn’t make sense to require them to test.
Opportunity Scholarship Program Reporting
The new data reporting requirements for the state’s other school-choice program, the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Scholarship Fund, are different from Lindsey Nicole Henry’s. That program is not under the Education Department but is managed by scholarship-granting organizations, which collect donations and disperse the scholarship funds to private schools, and educational improvement grant organizations, which collect donations for public schools.
Under a new law, the Oklahoma Tax Commission will be required to publish the complete list of those organizations on its website as well as an audited financial statement of each and details about the “benefits, successes or failures” of the program.
Beginning in 2023, scholarship-granting organizations must report:
• the amount of funds and number of scholarship students for each school;
• total contributions received;
• some demographic information about the students, such as low-income and disability status.
The reporting requirements for educational improvement grant organizations, which include the total amount of each grant and a description of each, weren’t changed by the law.
Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC