One-year delay for Oklahoma school-choice program harms children

Ray Carter | April 17, 2024

The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities (LNH) program, created in 2010, has been a godsend and even a lifesaver for many families over the past 14 years.

But for many Oklahomans, one glitch in the program has also made it a heartbreaker: A child must be in public school for a year before he or she can become eligible for an LNH scholarship.

In many instances that means families who have struggled for years as their child slips further behind academically—and at times has associated emotional problems as a result—must endure more of the same for another 12 months, even as they know a better option is just out of reach.

“I was beholden to this system that required me to put my child back into a school that had already failed him, severely, for two years,” said Kandice Jeske, a mother of five children, including a son with several diagnosed learning challenges.

Karly McEntire, a mother of three daughters, including a 10-year-old in fourth grade who has significant diagnosed learning challenges, said it was “devastating” to find a private school that could serve her child and learn that the LNH program could make that option viable for her family—but not for another year.

“It seemed like such a huge miracle to us, but (seeing) the cost of it and realizing that there was something there that was supposed to help families like us afford this, but then we had to wait and take her back to a public school where she wasn’t able to get support before, was hugely daunting, very upsetting,” McEntire said.

The LNH program allows students to use tax dollars to pay for private-school tuition. The program serves children with special needs who have an individualized education program (IEP), adoptive children, and foster children.

But the requirement for prior-year enrollment in a public school means many families must place a child in a setting where they were underserved before or even suffered emotional harm.

Jeske’s oldest son has been diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia, which make reading and writing difficult, and dyscalculia, which affects an individual’s ability to do math. One daughter has similar challenges with reading and writing.

Both children have also been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), inattentive type. People with that form of ADHD have trouble focusing but are not typically impulsive or hyperactive.

“Two weeks after we started Trinity, he looked at me and he’s like, ‘Mom, I don’t hate school anymore.’” —Kandice Jeske

The family realized the boy had challenges early on, and asked their public school to have him tested when he was in the second grade.

“The first round of testing came back—‘nothing wrong,’” Jeske said. “We were like, ‘That’s weird, because his IQ says he’s a 134 IQ but he’s not reading at the end of second grade.’”

At the urging of local public-school officials, the family paid for speech therapy and occupational therapy from private providers for two years but saw little improvement.

As time went by, Jeske said her son began to “spiral mentally” and experience “severe anxiety and depression” because he could not learn like other kids and was aware of it.

The family paid $2,800 for private testing when the boy was in fourth grade. The results of those tests, which took about six months, diagnosed the youth with multiple learning challenges, unlike the prior tests funded by the school.

By that point, the Jeske family knew of the LNH program and wanted to use it to enroll their son in Trinity School at Edgemere, a private school that specializes in serving children with learning differences.

But they still had to get an individualized education program (IEP) from the public school to qualify for LNH. That extended the process for several more months.

“We knew that he would qualify for LNH, because we had all this testing,” Jeske said. “So all summer we had to not apply to Trinity. We didn’t know if he was going to have a slot. We didn’t know what was going to go on. But to get LNH, we had to wait until our IEP meeting, which didn’t even happen until the end of August, two weeks after school started. And then we had to wait to establish the IEP, and then we couldn’t move him until Oct. 1—when we knew full and well what we’d known for two years at that time: That there is a problem. But we knew conclusively, definitively, since mid-March that something was extremely wrong. And, again, you’re watching your child decline mentally this entire time.”

The process for McEntire’s daughter was also drawn out over several years.

Her oldest daughter, now 10, has dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and ADHD. The family knew the girl had learning differences “from a pretty early age,” McEntire said, but she was diagnosed with only ADHD in kindergarten. Her other challenges were not diagnosed for several more years.

Over and over again, public-school officials told the family to simply wait, and the issues would resolve themselves.

“This is our oldest child and we were like, ‘Okay, these are professionals. This is what they do. This is not what we do for a living,’” McEntire said. “We just kept buying time and hoping it would click.”

The girl attended kindergarten in Oklahoma City in the 2019-2020 school year. Once COVID hit and officials in the Oklahoma City district announced that nearly all learning would be done online for the following school year, the family chose to instead enroll their daughter in Epic Charter Schools, since it was an established online school. But they found that environment did not work for their daughter.

By third grade, the family decided to stop using the online public school and instead shifted the girl to full-time enrollment in the Beacon School in Edmond. While a good environment, the child’s mental health was deteriorating as she still struggled to catch up to classmates.

“Although she loved it there and was happy there, we were having a lot of school confidence issues,” McEntire said. “It was starting to really affect her mental health. She was starting to be really aware of the gap between her and her peers.”

“She got back in the car that first day and she was beaming and said, ‘Mom, this is the first time ever I’ve understood what a teacher was trying to teach me.’” —Karly McEntire

At that point, the family sought a formal diagnosis again. The testing occurred in December 2022. The results did not come in until roughly May.

Because the child was not enrolled in public school at that time, the family could not obtain an IEP without re-enrolling her, and re-enrollment was also required to become eligible for the LNH program, which would help the family pay for the girl to attend Trinity School.

“She’s done three years of public school, but not the immediate year prior,” McEntire said. “Because we took her out of Epic for third grade, we disqualified her from the help she needed.”

The child has been at Trinity only since January, but the family is paying for that out of personal funds. The girl will not receive LNH funding until next year.

“We are paying for this out of pocket, which is a financial strain for our family, but it’s what we have to do for her,” McEntire said.

Both women have seen a marked difference in their child’s mental health in a very short time since shifting their children to Trinity rather than a traditional public school.

“Two weeks after we started Trinity, he looked at me and he’s like, ‘Mom, I don’t hate school anymore,’” Jeske said. “I was like, ‘Tell me about that, buddy.’ And he was like, ‘In public schools they thought I was stupid, so they expected me to fail, but Trinity expects a lot more from me, so I have to do a lot more. So I’m going to do a lot more.’ It was just a complete 180 in literally 10 days. I have it in my journal. It was 10 days. He knew that he wasn’t stupid.”

The boy is now 12 and “thriving,” Jeske said. Thanks to the services provided at Trinity, Jeske said the youth will soon be able to attend school in a setting with general-population students, not just those with learning challenges.

McEntire knew things would be different after only one day of her daughter shadowing students at Trinity.

“She’d had so much anxiety with school previously. We were dealing with her crying and not wanting to get out of the car going to school. It was just an everyday ordeal, so much anxiety,” McEntire said. “When she shadowed at Trinity, she got back in the car that first day and she was beaming and said, ‘Mom, this is the first time ever I’ve understood what a teacher was trying to teach me.’ It choked me up. That’s music to my ears and answered prayer. Exactly what I wanted to hear. And it solidified this is exactly where she needs to be. But also, it was overwhelming because it had been so many years in the making of getting her to this point, and we still had hurdles to cross trying to find out how to even afford it financially.”

Lawmakers respond to family needs

The realities endured by Oklahomans like the Jeske and McEntire families have prompted lawmakers to advance legislation to streamline the LNH program so children can access needed services and educational options much faster.

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

The bill passed out of the Oklahoma Senate last year and won approval in the House Rules Committee earlier this month.

During that committee meeting, state Rep. Kyle Hilbert, a Bristow Republican who is also House Speaker-designee for his caucus, made the case for the bill’s passage with a rhetorical question.

“If you have a student who is entering preschool or kindergarten and they have some disability or some severe challenges, may be nonverbal, and perhaps the public school for the ZIP code they live in doesn’t have the capacity to educate the child and provide the services the child needs, is it better for that child for the parent to be able to send that child to a private school who can offer those services,” Hilbert asked, “or is it better for them to send their child to a public school that isn’t able to provide those services for a year so they can check a box and then do it in a second year? Which is a better scenario for the kid?”

“Without a shadow of a doubt, when you look at it from the perspective of the child, it’s an absolute no-brainer,” respondedEchols, R-Oklahoma City.

SB 358 now awaits a vote on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

Jeske said lawmakers cannot fully appreciate what passage of SB 358 will mean for LNH families.

“The mental anguish it would have saved my child,” Jeske said, “is just immeasurable.”

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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