Mike Brake | October 9, 2019

Foster and adoptive children receiving school choice opportunities

Mike Brake

When the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program was opened to foster and adopted children in 2017, no one knew how popular it would be. While participation in the program has grown steadily in three years, for at least one family with five foster and adopted children, the program extension has been literally life-changing. 

Created in 2010, the Henry scholarship program initially allowed parents of children with special needs to take a portion of the funds allocated for their child’s education in the public schools and move the child and the funds to a private school that would better serve them.

Despite vigorous opposition from some in the public education establishment, the program has gradually expanded through the years as parents whose children needed better or safer schools were able to choose where they would attend classes without the financial burden that would normally accompany private school enrollment.

Then, in 2017, the Henry scholarship program was extended by the Legislature to cover children in foster care or who have been adopted out of state custody. 

According to Oklahoma Department of Human Services data, there are more than 500 children in state custody awaiting adoptive families, and almost 8,000 in DHS custody, most in or eligible for foster care.

In the first year of the expanded Henry program, 58 foster or adoptive children were enrolled in private schools under the program. In year two, that number rose to 124. 

Data provided by the State Department of Education shows that for the first part of the 2019-20 school year, of 980 children receiving Henry scholarship funding 205 were eligible under the foster/adoptee criteria. Since the Henry scholarship application deadline is not until December 1, it would appear that the number of foster and adopted students participating in the program has effectively doubled each year.

Sarah Herrian, a parent of five children from ages 15 months to 14 years, all of them either in foster care or adopted from state custody, said the Henry program’s extension to cover such children “was literally a lifesaver for our family.

“It has allowed us to provide a Christian education to our children in a private school,” she said. “So many of these children come from broken places. They need a caring and loving teacher and a safe environment. Our four children now in school can take advantage of small classes and individual attention.” 

Herrian said the state funds that come to the family under the program pay most of the private school costs for her children, making it possible to enroll all four of those who are of school age in private schools.

She said she has no problem with public schools, where she said for most teachers “the heart is caring,” but larger classes and other issues make those schools less than ideal for many children who have been through the foster care system and the dysfunction that many of them have experienced. 

“I share the news of the Henry program to many other foster and adoptive parents, and word is getting around,” Herrian said. “It is one of the first things I talk about.”

According to Steffie Corcoran, spokesperson for SDE, the agency is “working with DHS to ensure foster families know about the expansion of the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarships.” 

Corcoran said SDE paid out a total of $5.7 million in Henry scholarship funding during the 2018-19 school year. Of that total, $414,592 was for students qualifying under the foster/adoptee criteria. That computes to about $3,600 per pupil in state funds paid to send those children to private schools.

Mike Brake

Independent Journalist

Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.

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