by Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – A diverse crowd of parents and education-reform activists arrived at the State Capitol on Tuesday (March 1) to celebrate the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships program. They spent the day encouraging lawmakers to back additional School Choice measures. The rally was organized by ChoiceMatters for Kids, an organization of parents supporting Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).
Henry scholarships are now used by hundreds of Oklahoma parents who have children with special needs. Each parent or guardian in the program is allowed to redirect several thousand dollars of their taxes to help pay for tuition at private schools.
Parents, educators and elected officials who spoke at the rally all said the Henry scholarships benefit children whose needs are not met by local public schools.
“Not only are the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarships changing lives, they’re saving lives,” said Jennifer Vaught, head administrator at Trinity School, a faith-based school in Oklahoma City.
Vaught said that children with special needs and issues like dyslexia “need specialized programs and specialized teachers” that often are not available in their local public school.
Expanding School Choice
In February, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled unanimously that public dollars can be used to fund private education, including faith-based education, as long as those dollars were controlled by parents.
The state High Court’s decision is the most significant ruling supporting school choice programs in Sooner State history. The ruling affirmed both the particular program now afforded to taxpaying families with special needs children and concluded that choice programs can be structured in a way to satisfy the current court’s scrutiny interpretation of state legal provisions.
Attendees at Tuesday’s rally celebrated the ruling, but also spoke about the need to use the recent victory as a spring-board to build on the success of the Henry scholarships.
Wearing bright blue t-shirts with the Twitter hashtag “ESAforKids,” many of the rally-goers spoke in support of what they referred to as a more expansive version of the Henry scholarships: Education Savings Accounts.
State Senator Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, has filed Senate Bill 609, to give every parent in Oklahoma (barring those whose children are already in private schools or faith-based schools a government-authorized account of several thousand dollars for educational expenses. State Representative Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, has filed House Bill 2949, a somewhat pared-down vision, offering ESAs to parents of low-income children and children with special needs.
Kelley McGuire, who attended the rally and describes herself as a “feisty, passionate” parent of two children, said the effort to enact ESAs has been unfairly attacked as being anti-public school.
“[ESAs] are not an indictment of public schools or just a pro-private school effort. It’s about finding the right fit,” said McGuire. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution in education.”
Former state Republican Party Vice-Chair Estela Hernandez (https://city-sentinel.com/2015/05/southern-republican-leadership-conference-oklahomas-estela-hernandez-is-a-key-player/), who now works on policy issues for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), sported the bright blue ESA shirt and voiced similar themes.
Hernandez has two boys in public school and one daughter in a charter school.
“If we passed ESAs, my kiddos would remain right where they’re at,” she said. “But I see children with special needs and those are who I am here to advocate for.”
Elected Officials Weigh In
Commissioner of Labor Melissa Houston also addressed the rally, saying that her role was to “promote the welfare of those in the workforce and promote opportunities for employment. The key to opportunity is education, and the key to successful education is choice.”
Governor Mary Fallin and Attorney General Scott Pruitt both briefly visited with several parents, offering their support and encouraging words.
Rep. Nelson authored the bill creating the Henry scholarships , spoke to loud applause.
“We need to shift power away from institutions to individuals and empower Oklahoma kids and their families,” he said.
The Henry Scholarship program which gained the state Supreme Court’s unanimous backing is named for Lindsey Nicole Henry, daughter of Brad and Kim Henry of Shawnee. Suffering from a rare condition, Lindsey died as a child. The Henrys supported Nelson’s proposal and, with their permission, Nelson named the scholarship program for their daughter.
The final version of the measure passed with bipartisan support in 2010, and was signed into law by then-Gov. Brad Henry.