Ray Carter | December 19, 2022

Henry program’s success dispels anti-school-choice arguments

Ray Carter

Like many parents, Sheerean Aryan faced significant challenges getting her children a quality education once the Tulsa Public Schools district embarked on a long-term shutdown in response to COVID.

As a single working parent, it was not feasible to leave her two boys at home for online school. And when Sheerean obtained a transfer to another district that provided in-person instruction, it not only came with a two-hour daily commute but also one other major downside: The new school failed to provide the speech therapy required by her sons’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

“They were owed those services for two years,” Sheerean said, “and they did not receive them.”

Then Sheerean learned her sons were eligible for the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarship Program for Children with Disabilities, which allows parents to use some of the tax dollars allotted for a child’s education to pay for private-school tuition.

Sheerean’s sons are now enrolled in a private school and thriving. She said the LNH program has not only benefited children like her sons, but also has given parents greater influence.

“I have more say as a parent in a private school than I did in a public-school system where I had to really fight,” Sheerean said. “It was like, in their mind (in public school), it’s almost like they feel like they have the power instead of me. That’s how it felt. And I didn’t feel like I had any voice.”

She noted private schools “worked so much harder” to stay open during the pandemic than many public schools, such as Tulsa, and attributed that to the fact that private school officials knew they would lose funding if they lost students.

And even though an IEP is effectively a legal contract that obligates public schools to provide specified services to children, Sheerean’s sons went without speech therapy for most of two years as school officials often dismissed her objections and concerns.

“It took me back to the time of the Titanic when third-class (passengers), they didn’t get put on the lifeboats, but the first class did,” Sheerean said. “And that’s kind of how the last few years felt: like we were third-class people because we had our kids in a public-school system.”

LNH program participation growing significantly

Sheerean and her sons are among the rapidly growing number of Oklahoma families who are now enrolled in the LNH program.

Although the LNH program is available only to a portion of the total state population—students with special needs who have IEPs, foster children, adopted children, and the children of military families—state records show a growing number of families within those groups are seizing the opportunity.

According to data recently posted by the Oklahoma State Department of Education, during the 2022 state fiscal year, which ended June 30, there were 1,410 students who applied for an LNH scholarship. That’s an increase of 24 percent from the 1,135 students who applied in 2021.

A growing number of private schools are also participating in the program. During this month’s meeting, members of the State Board of Education approved two more schools to participate in LNH—Oklahoma City-based Positive Tomorrows, which serves homeless children, and Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic High School, which serves working-class families. There are now 85 private schools participating in the LNH program statewide.

The growth of the LNH program is occurring as lawmakers are expected to consider legislation authorizing a statewide school-choice program similar to LNH for all children in Oklahoma. The results generated by LNH refute many arguments voiced by opponents of that proposed school-choice expansion.

Cost of educating students lower with LNH

For one thing, the LNH program has shown private schools can educate children at a lower average cost than traditional public schools, and LNH parents report better academic outcomes and better service.

Amy, who adopted two children out of foster care who are now LNH scholarship students, reported that her children now have access to a “phenomenal” education and are well served by their private school.

“They love it,” Amy said. “They love school. Both of my kids are loving it and they are so happy there. We are just so grateful.”

(Because of privacy concerns related to her children’s status as individuals adopted from foster care, this article references Amy by her first name only.)

For foster and adoptive children who have experienced trauma, she said private school settings are often better.

“Because they were adopted from foster care, the smaller class sizes at a private school, and the more one-on-one that they get from their teachers, is huge for our kids that have dealt with attachment (issues) and feelings of being overwhelmed,” Amy said. “It’s a big deal for them to go to a private school where it’s just a smaller community.”

The state cost of educating LNH students is, on average, substantially less than the per-pupil cost of educating any child in public schools.

Of the students who applied for LNH scholarships in 2022, there were ultimately 1,245 who qualified and chose to participate. Those students received a combined $9.1 million in scholarships, an average of $7,346 per student.

That’s substantially less than the average statewide per-pupil spending figure in Oklahoma public schools, which was $10,087 per student in the 2020-2021 school year.

And that $10,087 figure excludes spending on school facilities acquisition, construction services, debt service, and property expenditures. Once those costs are included, a data tool created by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs shows that there were 171 public school districts in Oklahoma with per-pupil funding greater than $14,000 per child. Only 42 of the more than 500 public-school districts had per-pupil spending below $10,000 per student that year, and no traditional public school district in Oklahoma spent less than $8,453 per student.

Even when LNH scholarships don’t cover all private-school expenses, families benefit

In many instances, the amount of state funds spent on LNH scholarships is around one-half to one-third of the total per-pupil amount spent in public schools. The amount of each LNH scholarship varies based on the unique needs of each child. Those with challenges requiring more significant interventions—such as autism—may get a larger scholarship amount, while those with less-severe challenges receive a smaller voucher.

Amy’s family received around $5,600 per child, an amount that is about one-third the per-pupil spending seen in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City school districts after all expenses are included.

Amy said the LNH scholarship does not cover the full cost of private-school tuition—the family pays the rest out of pocket—but that the LNH program made private school feasible.

“It changed everything for us,” Amy said. “Because we knew what school we wanted to go to but it was like $8,000 per kid, and we couldn’t do that.”

Sheerean similarly said that private school “definitely would have been out of reach for me” without the LNH program.

“Lindsey Nicole’s contributing. I’m still paying some monthly,” Sheerean said. “But it’s enough where it can be affordable.”

The program has also benefited families across the state. State data shows LNH students attended at least 20 private schools located outside Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, which are the state’s two urban core counties. LNH students attended rural private schools across the state in counties ranging from Washita County in western Oklahoma to Okmulgee County in the eastern half of the state to Bryan County in southern Oklahoma.

While the LNH program is saving taxpayer money, scholarship recipients measure the program’s value by a different metric—greater hope and opportunity for their children.

“Instead of saying, ‘Ok, your kid has a disability, and now we’re going to just put them off to the side and put them in a special-ed class,’ Lindsey Nicole Henry says we’re going to give you money and give you something to make their lives better,” Sheerean said. “And they give you an opportunity to put them in a private school and receive something way better than they would in a public school.”

“As a parent, education has been the number one thing that we have kind of had stress over and making the right choice for them and making sure they have a great place to go,” Amy said. “And that burden is gone.”

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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