Ray Carter | February 14, 2023

Barrier to special-needs education access could fall

Ray Carter

Children with special needs would have faster access to a state scholarship program that pays for private-school tuition under legislation approved by an Oklahoma Senate committee.

“We’re trying to make sure that students with special needs and their families have access to be able to apply for the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship without needing to spend a year in the public school first,” said state Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville.

The longstanding Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities (LNH) program allows students to use state tax dollars to pay for private-school tuition. The program serves children with special needs, adoptive children, foster children, and children in military families.

However, under current law, a child must be in a public school for a year before he or she can become eligible for the LNH program. Daniels said that imposes a form of “learning loss” on children whose families have determined they would be better served elsewhere.

“Being in a public school for a year when you know you’re going to access other services or you’re already eligible for other services, seems to me to take away a year of education from that child,” Daniels said.

Senate Bill 358, by Daniels, eliminates the requirement for a student to be enrolled in a public school for one year before they can receive an LNH scholarship.

State Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa, complained about the amount of money going to LNH students, even though the per-pupil taxpayer cost of educating those same children in a public school would be substantially greater.

“I’m reading that we’ve spent about $50 million on these vouchers since inception of the program in 2010,” Dossett said.

Dossett’s $50 million cumulative estimate appeared to originate with the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA), a lobbyist organization whose national affiliate famously urged the Biden administration to prosecute parents under anti-terrorism laws when families began speaking out about education concerns at school board meetings.

From the 2010-2011 school year to the 2021-2022 school year, OSSBA estimates that the LNH program involved a cumulative total of $47.4 million in scholarships.

“I know these children. They are people and they have faces to me. I have been walking alongside them on their journey.” —State Sen. Kristen Thompson (R-Edmond)

But both state Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Tuttle, and state Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, noted the cost of the LNH program is less than a rounding error when compared to the total amount spent on public schools during the existence of the program.

From the 2010-2011 school year to the 2021-2022 school year, Oklahoma public schools have received a cumulative total of $80 billion in funding from all sources, according to state records. LNH funds amount to 0.06 percent of that total or, put another way, for every $100 spent on public schools during the existence of the LNH program only 6 cents has gone to LNH students.

Daniels noted the average LNH scholarship was around $6,900 per student in 2021. That is nearly half the $12,967 per-pupil amount spent statewide, on average, on all public-school students, let alone those with special needs who are typically funded at a higher per-pupil level.

“These are dollars well spent,” Daniels said.

Opponents of the bill questioned the ability of parents to determine whether a private school is serving their child well.

“I have great concerns about whether or not this funding will actually help the kids who need it the most,” said state Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City.

“Is there any mechanism in this bill or in current statute that ensures that money that goes out the door through this program, to the tune of $50 million to this point, is being well-spent?” Dossett said.

But state Sen. Kristen Thompson, R-Edmond, said parents have a much better grasp on their child’s needs than supposed experts at some public schools, referencing messages she has received from constituents whose children have benefited from the LNH program.

“I know these children,” Thompson said. “They are people and they have faces to me. I have been walking alongside them on their journey.”

One child attended two public schools and did not receive needed services, nor was the child given the Individualized Education Programs (IEP) required by law, until the family paid out of pocket to receive private testing that demonstrated the child has special needs. That child is now using an LNH scholarship to attend private school and is “thriving,” Thompson said.

Another student was told by public-school officials that the student simply had “anxiety,” but in 2022 the family obtained outside testing. That child went on to use LNH to attend a private school and the difference between the two systems was night and day.

“They went from a kindergarten reading level to fourth grade in one semester,” Thompson said.

She noted that a third student’s family also had to pay for outside testing to prove their child had special needs when public-school officials argued otherwise.

“Services delayed are services denied,” Thompson said. “I am an emphatic yes on this.”

Paxton said those citing concerns about proper use of education funding in the LNH program are overlooking far more glaring problems elsewhere, noting many public school districts recently shifted to online learning rather than call true snow days.

“I wish that there was as much concern about money being well-spent—when we’re talking about $42 billion (in public-school spending) over the last six years—if those kids on a virtual snow day were actually getting an education that day,” Paxton said. “Because I’m pretty sure I know the answer.”

He indicated there is no reason to believe LNH funds are not benefiting children.

“This money is not ‘going out the door’ to be wasted,” Paxton said. “It’s going out into other doors to especially educate kids who need that little extra hand up.”

SB 358 passed the Senate Education Committee on an 8-4 vote.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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