Oklahoma Supreme Court upholds special needs vouchers

Travis Pillow

A school voucher program does not violate a state ban on aid to religious institutions, the Oklahoma state Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 9-0 decision, justices upheld a scholarship program that allows some 400 children with special needs to attend private schools.

The ruling hinged on issues that are being raised in similar cases around the country.

Justices held the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students Disabilities gives aid to students, not schools, and that it provides a “substantial benefit” to the state, by helping fulfill its duty to educate children with special needs.

Oklahoma is one of nearly 40 states where so-called Blaine Amendments ban state support of religious institutions. These restrictions have long been the bane of vouchers and other private school choice programs. A similar provision was used to strike down a unique voucher program in Colorado last year, and another is being cited to challenge Florida’s tax credit scholarship program*.

Critics of Oklahoma’s program argued it took away religious freedom by unconstitutionally supporting religious schools. They prevailed in a lower court last year.

High court justices, however, noted school districts in the Sooner State have long had the option of contracting with private schools to help educate students with special needs.

When it created the scholarship program, the justices held [emphasis theirs], “[T]he legislature simply allowed parents and legal guardians the same right that school districts already enjoyed, the choice to use state funds to contract with an approved private institution for special education services.”

Because the state provides scholarships to parents, not schools, and parents have a range of religious and non-religious options, justices determined the program is “religion neutral.” Citing a U.S. Supreme Court Case that upheld a voucher program in Cleveland, they concluded the state was not supporting religious or “sectarian” institutions, which the state constitution prohibits. It was simply giving parents the means to afford private education.

“It is the parent who then directs payment by endorsement to the independently chosen private school,” they wrote [emphasis theirs]. “Any scholarship funds deposited to a private sectarian school occur as the sole result of the parent’s independent selection free from State control or direction.”

Justices went on to cite a past ruling that upheld the use of public money to fund religiously affiliated orphanages. Oklahoma’s high court in 1946 found that expenditure was permissible because the state “was fulfilling its duty to provide care for the needy.”

In a similar vein, justices reasoned the scholarship program helped the government meet its obligation to educate children with special needs, and the public-school system “receives a substantial benefit, being relieved of the duty to provide special educational services to the scholarship recipient.”

They sent the case back to the lower court for more deliberation, with orders that the scholarship program be upheld.

*Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program in Florida.

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