Law & Courts

A Bitter Fight Over Vouchers in Oklahoma

By Sean Cavanagh — October 03, 2011 2 min read
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An increasingly nasty fight over private school vouchers in Oklahoma is playing out in the courts—and via social media.

The furor stems from a lawsuit filed by a pair of Oklahoma school districts that challenges a law that provides private-school aid to students with disabilities, a measure the districts say violates the state’s constitution. (See my story last week on the raft of school lawsuits over vouchers and other issues playing out in the states.)

Those districts’ stance drew a harsh response from Jennifer Carter, the chief of staff at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, who labeled them “dirtbags” in a tweet sent out last month.

Her message—first reported by the Tulsa World—appeared to be directed at the Jenks and Union school districts’ decision to sue the individual families receiving private school vouchers. (The superintendent of the Union district, who I interviewed a few weeks ago, told me that the districts did not want to sue the families but had no other legal option in trying to block the law.)

Jenks school officials responded to Carter’s tweet by saying the voucher law is using special education students as “pawns in an attempt to initiate vouchers in Oklahoma.”

In their view, the law, approved in 2010 and amended by state lawmakers this year, violates provisions in Oklahoma’s state constitution that prevent public tax dollars from flowing to religious institutions.

“Our school boards believe the two laws will be deemed unconstitutional by the courts,” Jenks officials said in a statement to Education Week, “and we find it revealing that others apparently do not want this issue decided by the courts.”

Oklahoma state schools superintendent Janet Barresi said her aide had used a “poor choice of words,” but also took the opportunity to criticize the school districts for their lawsuit.

"[I]t is morally wrong for superintendents of school districts to sue parents who want nothing more than what’s best for their children,” Barresi said in a statement. “I think Oklahomans are concerned and shocked that any school district would vindictively target the parents of special needs children with a groundless lawsuit.”

Legal challenges to state voucher laws are quite common, and they usually hinge on the language of state constitutions and the extent to which they forbid public money from flowing to religious institutions. Some states have very restrictive language, which can derail private school choice, while others are more open.

Oklahoma has been the site of rancorous educational and political clashes over the past year. Members of the state’s board of education waged a public feud with Barresi over her selection of staff—including Carter—at the state’s department of education, one that had some bizarre ramifications. It appears the latest fight will be decided in court.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.