By Patrick B. McGuigan and Stacy Martin | CapitolBeatOK
OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma school districts cannot sue parents who use state funds to send their special-needs children to private schools, the Oklahoma State Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
On a 7-2 vote, justices said the Jenks and Union public school districts in northeast Oklahoma did not have legal standing to sue the parents who receive state aid through the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program.
The decision was seen as a win for school-choice advocates.
“As recently as last week, I received an emotional e-mail from a parent who detailed how being able to use the scholarship has changed their child’s life for the better,” said State Rep. Jason Nelson, the Oklahoma City Republican who shepherded the program through the Legislature in 2010. “I’ve never doubted that we were right on the law, and it’s nice to have the confirmation of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. This is a program that saves the public school system money while benefiting children with special needs by giving them more educational options that meet their unique needs. Today’s ruling will allow these families to breathe a sigh of relief after months of uncertainty.”
The court’s decision turned on whether the districts could sue parents who were following state law.
“The funds at issue are not taxes from taxpayers in the districts’ county revenue streams that a county assessor is improperly reducing or disposing of, but part of the Legislature’s general grant to the districts, through the State Department of Education,” Vice Chief Justice Tom Colbert wrote. “Because the school districts are not the ones charged with the duty to provide free public education, the Legislature’s withholding of certain funds, even if it is unconstitutional, does not violate a constitutionally protected interest of the school districts themselves, because they are merely the Legislature’s vehicle.”
Justices Yvonne Kauger, Joseph Watt, James Winchester, John Reif, Doug Combs and Noma Gurich voted with the majority.
In a brief dissent, Chief Justice Steven Taylor and Justice James Edmondson wrote, “The constitutional issue has been fairly joined.” They were both willing to decide the underlying issues of the case.
The parents had received state funds through the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program. In suing the parents, the districts argued that using state funds to support private schools violates provisions of the state constitution.
The law, named for a daughter of former Gov. Brad Henry and his wife, Kim, passed with bipartisan support in 2010.
“Because the school districts lack standing/justiciable issues to sue parents of students for the issuance of state dollars from the State Department of Education to the parents for payments to private schools, we deny the motion for oral argument and deny all applications for amicus curiae briefs,” Colbert wrote for the majority.
“The parents are clearly not the proper parties against whom to assert these constitutional challenges,” Colbert argued. “We hold that the school districts have neglected to meet the threshold standing requirement for constitutional challenges.”
The two districts won a controversial victory on March 27, when a district judge in Tulsa granted summary judgment against the parents of special needs children accessing the program.
“From the beginning, we believed it was improper for these school districts to sue the parents of special needs children simply for following the law, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK. “We are pleased Oklahoma’s Supreme Court agreed, and ruled that these school districts lacked standing to make their claims against the children’s families. The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Act is the law and districts must follow the law.”
“I applaud the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision today to discontinue the challenge to the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi. “This is a victory for students with disabilities throughout our state and for their families. This also is a victory for education choice in Oklahoma.”
Also cheering the decision was Brandon Dutcher, policy vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. He told CapitolBeatOK, “OCPA has said from the beginning that it’s outrageous for superintendents making roughly a quarter-million dollars annually to sue the parents of autistic children. The government ought not to sue citizens for doing what they have every right to do. Here’s hoping these parents and their children have a very happy Thanksgiving.”
Contact Patrick B. McGuigan at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.
— Edited by Kelly Carson, [email protected]