Oklahoma County District Court Judge Bernard Jones has ruled unconstitutional a portion of a law that allows the use of public funds to send special-needs students to private religious schools.
State Attorney General Scott Pruitt said he would appeal the ruling, which says that funds from the scholarship program cannot be used to send students with disabilities to religious schools. The judge’s order has been stayed pending appeal, which means the scholarship program remains unchanged for now.
“Prohibiting the use of Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarship funds from being used to send students with disabilities to religiously affiliated schools would require the state to discriminate against those schools,” Pruitt said in a written statement. “That is highly troublesome and why we will appeal the ruling.”
This ruling continues a nearly four-year legal battle over the constitutionality of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities law. Plaintiffs have long argued the law violates the Oklahoma Constitution’s prohibition on the use of public funds for private religious institutions.
Jones is the second district court judge to strike down the law as unconstitutional. Tulsa County District Judge Rebecca Nightingale declared it unconstitutional in March 2012 in a different lawsuit.
In this lawsuit filed last October, plaintiffs contend “the Oklahoma Constitution only authorizes the Legislature to fund ‘a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the state may be educated.’ “
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has already ruled that when a parent wants to send a child to a private secular or religious school, that parent is “faced with the necessity of assuming the financial burden which the choice entails,” the lawsuit continues.
Fifty-one private schools in the state have been approved to accept students with the scholarships, state figures show. Of those, 44 are religious schools. Only six specifically cater to students with special needs.
“Introducing government into private and parochial schools is not what we should be doing. So I am pleased with the ruling,” said Melissa Abdo, one of 12 plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
She said there is no accountability or transparency for public tax dollars under the program.
Other plaintiffs include a state senator, retired and current superintendents, a parent of a child with special needs, college professors and a retired judge.
Former Jenks Superintendent Kirby Lehman, who also is a plaintiff and was in the courtroom for the ruling, said the judge declared the law was unconstitutional because it “violates the no-aid-to-religion clause” in the Oklahoma Constitution.
“This is a step in the right direction,” Lehman said.
In a written statement, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association said: “We believe the diversion of public taxpayer dollars to private schools is unconstitutional. In addition, the concern has always been that private schools are not subject to the same locally elected oversight and are not required to provide the same level of educational services as public schools.”
Tom Farrell, whose son’s education at Town and Country School was subsidized under the program, said the ruling is heartbreaking.
“I can’t imagine the mindset of those who want to keep a monopoly on our tax dollars that we pay to send our own kids to school and why they would want that monopoly to stay with the public schools,” he said.
Although Farrell is a staunch Christian, he said he understands some people not wanting to send public money to religious schools.
“But that’s not really the point of the law. These are kids who need special care. Smaller classrooms and more attention than they can get in a public school setting where there’s 28 kids in a room,” Farrell said.
His son now attends a religious school that is not approved to receive Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarships.
Another parent, who asked that her name not be used, said she is frustrated with the ruling.
“Had the public school systems in Oklahoma been able to provide adequate education for special needs students, families would not have had to take advantage of this program,” she said.
Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, co-author of the Henry law, said the judge’s decision doesn’t close the door on the law.
“I left optimistic because he didn’t strike down the whole law. We’re in a better position than we were two years ago with the judge’s ruling in Tulsa,” he said.