School Choice & Charters

Okla. Districts Balk at Special Education Vouchers

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 14, 2010 3 min read

Four Oklahoma school districts have voted not to comply with a new state law that would let students with disabilities use public money to go to private schools.

School boards for the 4,400-student Bixby and 14,900-student Union school districts, both in the Tulsa, Okla., area, voted Oct. 11 not to provide scholarships to parents who apply for them under the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act, which became effective in August. The Broken Arrow and Jenks school boards, also in the Tulsa area, had already voted on Oct. 4 not to comply with the law.

When Democratic Gov. Brad Henry signed the scholarship measure into law last June, Oklahoma joined Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Utah in creating a voucher program to help pay for private school for children with disabilities, according to Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which is a strong advocate of school choice.

The Louisiana legislature also passed a law to create a voucher program for students with disabilities just weeks after Oklahoma did.

Also, Arizona once had such a voucher program, but it was struck down by the Arizona supreme court last year because of issues regarding the separation of church and state. But the Arizona legislature created a tax-credit program that served the same students but changed how the scholarships were distributed.

The Broken Arrow School District has put a hold on providing any scholarship funds because the new law contradicts Oklahoma’s constitution, said Jarod Mendenhall, the superintendent for the 16,700-student school district. According to the state constitution, public funds can’t go to private religious schools, he said.

All but one of the 22 schools approved to receive the scholarship money so far by the Oklahoma state board of education have names that suggest a religious affiliation.

The parents of nine students have applied to use the scholarships in his school district.

But Jason Nelson, the state representative who authored the law, criticized the defiant school districts for “violating the law.” He said, “I think what is happening is that we’ve got schools that have an ideological opposition to what the legislation is. They don’t like vouchers.”

Mr. Nelson said before the voucher law was passed, many school districts already opted to place some students with disabilities at private schools that could serve them, including religious schools.

He said the school districts waited until after the school year began to decide not to comply with the law, thus leaving parents who expected to receive scholarships and had already enrolled their children in private schools in a bad position.

“They are trying to settle a political score on the backs of these parents,” he said.

Multiple Concerns

Lisa Muller, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and school improvement for the Jenks school district, said that in addition to concerns about the mismatch between the state constitution and the new law, Jenks officials are concerned that private schools are not obliged by federal law, as public school districts are, to honor the individualized education program, or IEP, of a student with a disability.

“Our concern is that many parents may not understand the protections they are giving up by requesting these scholarships,” she said.

Parents of seven of the 10,300 students in the Jenks school district have applied to use the scholarship, she said.

Also, Ms. Muller said, school district officials are concerned that the law says that once students qualify for the scholarship, they can receive scholarship money until they graduate from high school. A private school could feasibly receive public funds for years for a student to whom it isn’t even giving any special services, she said.

But Mr. Nelson said the new scholarship law provides flexibility to parents who feel a school district isn’t doing its job in serving students with disabilities.

He also noted that school districts get to keep up to 5 percent of the scholarship funds to cover administrative costs and also continue to receive public funds for the students getting the scholarship money for two years after they have left the public school district.

The scholarship law doesn’t set a dollar amount that would be provided for each student. The amount is the same as the tuition of the school the student attends or the amount of per-pupil state aid that the school district receives where the student is enrolled, whichever is less.

Ms. Muller said a school district neighboring hers conducted research on the possible cost and found a scholarship could cost from $4,000 to $11,000 per student per year.

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Okla. Districts Balk at Special Education Vouchers

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