Ray Carter | March 1, 2023

Homeless children added to Oklahoma school-choice program

Ray Carter

Homeless children would be added to a longstanding school-choice voucher program, and the process for other students to benefit from the program would be streamlined, under legislation approved by an Oklahoma Senate committee.

The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities (LNH) program, which was created in 2010, allows students to use state tax dollars to pay for private-school tuition. The program serves children with special needs, adoptive children, and foster children.

However, a child must be in a public school for a year before he or she can become eligible for the LNH program.

Senate Bill 358, by state Sen. Julie Daniels, eliminates the requirement for a student to be enrolled in a public school for one year before receiving an LNH scholarship.

“We have students who go to a public school. It doesn’t work out for them. Parents find the services they need in another school setting, but they cannot access this scholarship without going back and attending that public school again,” said Daniels, R-Bartlesville. “And if you have a special-needs child, losing even one year of education is bad. But to have to repeat that in order to gain access to these funds to provide for your child’s education is really a burden on families who are already burdened.”

The legislation was also amended so that homeless children could participate in the LNH program. Although lawmakers are considering creation of a $5,000 per child refundable tax credit for families whose children attend private schools, Daniels noted that proposed program may not benefit homeless children as much as LNH eligibility.

“As we are now engaged in a discussion about school-choice programs and we have been sent a bill that calls for tax credits, it came to my attention that a particular school, Positive Tomorrows, that only serves homeless students, has said that their families would benefit much more by being allowed to participate in the Lindsey Nicole Henry program rather than try to access tax credits,” Daniels said.

Two opponents of the bill questioned whether parents could be trusted to determine the best educational opportunities for their children.

State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City asked “what assurances we have” that children in the LNH program will receive needed services in a private-school setting.

Daniels noted parents will not keep their child in a school that fails them.

“Obviously, you’re not going to use the scholarship and go access services that don’t actually suit your child’s needs,” Daniels said. “That’s why it’s such a successful program.”’

State Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, asked how state officials could tell if the LNH program is successful, dismissing parent testimonials.

“We are not guaranteeing outcomes for students with this,” Kirt said.

Daniels said parental satisfaction is a far more valid measurement of success than any government-mandated metric.

“The parents that access the program and continue to keep their children in these institutions where they believe their child’s special needs are being met—that, to me, is the sign of success,” Daniels said.

The Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA), a lobbyist organization whose national affiliate urged the Biden administration to prosecute parents under anti-terrorism laws when families began speaking out about education concerns at school board meetings, opposed the bill.

The OSSBA claimed the impact of the LNH program is to “directly reduce the amount of state aid available to public schools.” But state funding for public schools has surged dramatically over the history of the LNH program.

From the 2010-2011 school year to the 2021-2022 school year, OSSBA estimates the LNH program involved a cumulative total of $47.4 million in scholarships. But that figure is a minute fraction of total education spending.

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 also noted the average LNH scholarship has been around $7,000 per student in recent years. 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.

SB 358 passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 12-8 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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