Video: Supporters of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships speak out

August 8, 2012

When middle-school student Phylicia Lewis attended her local public school as an elementary student, she often ate her lunch in the bathroom.

"Some kids ... bullied me all the way until it was time for me to go home," Lewis says. "They'd say what a retard I was, sometimes, and it upset me really bad. ... Sometimes I wouldn't even go to lunch because of the teasing. So I'd go to the bathroom, I would eat my lunch in there or cry about it in the bathroom."

A bright-eyed, eager young girl who likes to learn, Lewis suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

"It was a struggle all the way from kindergarten to the seventh grade," says Phylicia's mother Juliette Lee. "It wasn't just the kids. It was the teachers, too. ... They didn't see that she was normal, but different. They just seen her with a disability."

When Lee read about the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program in a newspaper ad, she knew immediately that her daughter would be a perfect fit for it. Administered by the Oklahoma Department of Education, the program grants scholarships to special-needs students to attend private schools designed to meet their specific needs. The program costs taxpayers nothing; they'd be spending the amount of the scholarship on the child's public-school education anyway. It simply gives parents and students a choice of schools to attend.

Thanks to the program, Lewis now attends Town and Country, Oklahoma's only nonpublic nonprofit full-day school for children with disabilities. Today, Lewis wakes up every morning eager to attend school.

Lewis is not the only student to benefit from the LNH Scholarships; more than 100 students have taken advantage of the program since its inception in 2010.

Incredibly, despite the compelling evidence that the program has been a success, two Tulsa-area school districts are challenging the law that established it. Because many parents opt to use the scholarships to place their special-needs students in religiously-affiliated schools, opponents of the program say it violates a provision in the state constitution that prohibits the state government from supporting specific religious sects.

As law professor Brian McCall writes in this month's Perspective, disabled children have become the victim of ideology:

[S]ome school districts are trying to turn the idea into a principle: the government can have no contact with the church even if in the best interests of little children with special needs. In order not to endanger the ideology of impenetrable separation, disabled children who have received the help they need must be denied money the state set aside for their care simply because it can be obtained from a school connected to a religious organization.

There is a way to set this error right. The Court can return the rule to its appropriate status as an idea. That way the state of Oklahoma can not only sell a building to a church or send orphans to religious institutions but can also pay appropriated scholarship money to the families of disabled children who choose church-affiliated schools.

Many legal experts expect the Supreme Court to uphold the scholarship program -- but, in the meantime, the challenge to the program has galvanized supporters to speak out about its many benefits.

Last week, OCPA hosted a screening of a new documentary about the program -- and dozens of supporters turned out to express their enthusiasm and personal connection to Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship recipients. Several of these attendees went "on the blue carpet with OCPA" to answer a simple question: "Why the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program"?