| July 10, 2012

State superintendent stands up for special-needs kids

State superintendent Janet Barresi recently drew attention to a series of videos profiling Oklahoma families who have benefited from the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships program. “In these poignant profiles,” she writes, “we learn about the unique circumstances of special needs children — as well as the background factors and challenges that led families to seek out these scholarships in the first place.”

These profiles are poignant indeed, as you can see for yourself below. Dr. Barresi continues:

Oklahoma's Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act gives parents a choice in determining the best environment for their child. The program gives parents of special needs children the option to apply for scholarships to private schools. State Rep. Jason Nelson authored the law in 2010 with state Sen. Patrick Anderson. It was named after former Gov. Brad Henry’s infant daughter, who died of a rare neuromuscular disease.

Educational choice is at the root of the Henry Scholarship reform. Says a mother in one of the YouTube features, "This bill is only helping kids. It's not hurting anybody."

Unfortunately, the Henry scholarships have come under attack from superintendents in two northeastern Oklahoma school districts that countersued a group of parents. The parents filed suit in April 2011 when their children were denied the scholarships.

Since taking office, I’ve had the honor of meeting several times with families of special needs children taking advantage of this innovative program. I admire their determination in the face of indifference and hostility. These scholarships also have helped families seek assistance for children with autism from a collaborative project between the University of Central Oklahoma and Mercy Health Center (a Catholic institution).

Opponents cite the state constitution’s prohibition of public money “directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support” of any religion or sectarian institution.

Yet Oklahoma City University law professor and state constitutional expert Andrew Spiropoulos recently observed, “If the Henry program breaches the wall of separation between church and state, then so does every state-funded program where an individual can choose the provider of the service.”

The particular portion of our state constitution that opponents cite also has a somewhat dubious history, stemming from bigoted, anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment efforts across many states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although opponents to Henry scholarships won an early victory with a flawed ruling from a Tulsa judge, I’m optimistic the state Supreme Court will rule in the families’ favor.

Ultimately, this is a clash between two views: One group of people wishes to hold to a status quo that isn’t working for far too many families, and doesn’t seem designed for the needs of a new century.

Another group of people wants to see more choice in education, not less.

Choice is good for children, it’s good for communities, and it is good for schools.

She’s right, of course, and choice is especially good for the children benefiting from this scholarship. To see for yourself, please join us on the evening of July 31 for a 30-minute documentary, followed by a panel discussion with law professor Andrew Spiropoulos and state Rep. Jason Nelson. More information is available here.

Brandon Dutcher can be reached at or

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