J.E. McReynolds | February 22, 2019
Bill allowing scholarships for homeless students clears committee
A state-funded scholarship program for students with disabilities should be extended to benefit homeless children, according to Oklahoma Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat (R-Oklahoma City).
Treat’s Senate Bill 901 would allow homeless students to participate in the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarship Program.
SB 901 has cleared its first legislative hurdle, passing the Senate Education Committee this week on a vote of 10-7. It would provide scholarships for homeless students to enroll “in a school specifically designated for homeless students.”
In addition to Treat, senators voting for the bill were David Bullard (R-Duncan), Kim David (R-Porter), John Haste (R-Broken Arrow), Roland Pederson (R-Burlington), Marty Quinn (R-Claremore), Wayne Shaw (R-Grove), Jason Smalley (R-Stroud), Joe Newhouse (R-Broken Arrow), and Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa).
Opposing SB 901 were Sens. J.J. Dossett (D-Owasso), Tom Dugger (R-Stillwater), Carri Hicks (D-Oklahoma City), Allison Ikley-Freeman (D-Tulsa), Chris Kidd (R-Addington), Dewayne Pemberton (R-Muskogee), and Paul Scott (R-Duncan).
LNH scholarships were created by the Legislature in 2010. The program uses public funds to cover tuition costs at private institutions for children with special needs, foster children, and children adopted out of state custody.
Treat called educational opportunity “essential to unlocking a student’s potential.” In a news release issued prior to the committee vote, Treat said homeless students face tremendous obstacles. Expansion of the LNH program, he said, “is a great way to help them overcome those hurdles by getting an education that hopefully could help them become a transformational generation in their family tree.”
Jennifer Carter, Oklahoma state director for the advocacy group American Federation for Children, said her organization supports SB 901.
“We believe all children have unique needs and that increasing a parent’s options ensures more kids receive an education tailored to their distinct abilities and circumstances, but this is especially true of homeless children.”
Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said that more than 27,000 children attending public schools in Oklahoma are classified as homeless. However, he called SB 901 an “inadequate solution to an important challenge.”
Public schools, Hime said in a prepared statement, “work diligently every day to support these children and their families despite limited resources. We’re hopeful legislators will take this opportunity to understand how important it is to make sure all children who are identified as homeless can find the extra support they need at school, including improved access to counselors, social services, and physical and mental health resources. Our state’s vulnerable children deserve comprehensive action and solutions; SB 901 is neither.”
The Oklahoma Education Association, which generally opposes the use of taxpayer funds for private education, did not respond to a request for a comment on SB 901.
A statewide survey of Oklahoma voters, commissioned by OCPA and conducted by WPA Intelligence from January 29 to 31, found that 82 percent of respondents support the idea of expanding LNH eligibility to homeless students, while 14 percent oppose the idea.
Support outpolled opposition among Republicans (79 percent to 16 percent), Independents (85 percent to 14 percent), and Democrats (85 percent to 10 percent).
According to national advocacy groups that work with the homeless population, the number of homeless residents in Oklahoma rose by 2 percent between 2016 and 2017, the latest years for which figures are available. Across the country, about 1.3 million public school students are considered to be homeless. These numbers include children living in the homes of relatives or friends and in hotels.
The Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness says 5 percent of Oklahoma students entering the Head Start program are homeless. The percentage is lower than in most states.
Data compiled by Positive Tomorrows, which operates the only elementary school in the state for homeless children, claims that Oklahoma is the 7th worst state in the country for homeless children.
A private institution, Positive Tomorrows also says Oklahoma has more than 43,000 homeless children, not all of whom are school age. Most such children live in homeless shelters, but more than 10 percent are “couch homeless,” which means they sleep in motels, cars, on floors, etc.
The National Center for Homeless Education says the high school graduation rate for homeless students is 64 percent, compared to 77.6 percent for all low-income students and 84.1 percent for all students.
SB 901, Carter said, would “increase opportunities and improve life outcomes for Oklahoma children who are facing some of life’s greatest challenges.”
Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, named for a daughter of former Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, cover the cost of private education for qualifying students.
In the 2017-18 academic year, about 650 Oklahoma students benefited from the program, and 50 schools participated. The cost of the program that year was more than $3.7 million. Payments are capped at the lesser of actual tuition and fees or the amount the state would spend to educate a student at a public school.
A former managing editor of The Journal Record, J. E. McReynolds has served as a general assignment reporter, business editor, and opinion editor of The Oklahoman.