Selective outrage over ‘public money to private institutions’

December 23, 2011

Thanks to Oklahoma’s new Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, “at least $700,000 in state public school funds will be paid this year to send special-education students to private schools in Oklahoma,” Kim Archer reported October 17 in the Tulsa World.

This causes great consternation among many of our friends in the media, in the education establishment, and on the Left generally. But I would suggest that they needn’t worry. Indeed, that $700,000 is small potatoes. Even before the Henry Scholarships existed, school districts already sent special-needs kids to private schools (as even the scholarship foes themselves readily acknowledge; see, for example, the first 15 seconds of this clip).

According to the state Department of Education, there are hundreds of private placements each year, many of which are out of state. As Curtis Killman reported December 18 in the Tulsa World, the state Department of Education spent $2 million in fiscal year 2011 to send disabled children to Heartspring, a Wichita school for disabled children.

Seven separate contracts, each from $286,320 to $287,320 in value, were with Heartspring Inc. of Wichita, records show.

The contracts were requested by Oklahoma school districts in which the children live to pay for living and educational services for students.

In justifying the request, state education officials said: “The nature and severity of the child’s disability has determined that the child simply cannot receive free appropriate public education in a regular classroom or special education in a neighborhood.”

Since fiscal 2007, the state has issued $8 million in contracts to Heartspring Inc., records show.

Damon Gardenhire, a state Education Department spokesman, said the services provided by Heartspring are due to “unique situations based on the special and specific nature of the service provided, as well as the limited number of facilities that can provide the services needed.”

Hmmm … $8 million to one school, and nary a peep from school administrators or their attorneys about unconstitutional “gifts.” (When school districts request that public money be sent to private schools, it’s perfectly legitimate. When parents make the request, it’s unconstitutional.)

And it’s not just disabled kids. As Patrick McGuigan has pointed out, whether we’re talking about “educating toddlers or twenty-somethings, public dollars flow to private schools all the time.” Yet there’s no hue and cry from the establishment.

Some of these private schools are even—gasp!—religious in nature. But again, this sort of thing is commonplace. As Oklahoma Solicitor General Patrick R. Wyrick reminded us in a recent brief, “there are numerous ways in which state funds benefit religious institutions and organizations”—including Medicaid dollars being spent at religiously affiliated hospitals, state-funded scholarships being used at religious colleges, and DHS funds being spent in support of various religious institutions. Yet the Left doesn’t go to war over any of this.

No, they save their hostility and vindictiveness for special-needs children, including one who has been reduced to tears and thoughts of suicide because of being harassed daily in a public school, beaten by classmates with nunchucks, and shoved against a wall by a substitute teacher.

One wishes certain Oklahoma superintendents had the confidence and the compassion of Elizabeth Fagen, the superintendent of the Douglas County School District (the third-largest district in Colorado), whose school board actually enacted a private-school voucher plan. “I’m not afraid of the competition because I believe I have some of the most amazing schools in the country, and I believe our schools can compete with any schools,” says Dr. Fagen. “But if a parent truly believes—and they know their children well—if they truly believe that a school outside of my district is going to be the school that offers that child the opportunity to maximize their full potential, I don’t want to be in the way of that. I actually want to help them get there.”