OKLAHOMA CITY – Two Republican legislators who managed historic reforms in Oklahoma’s school choice program for special needs children have received recognition for their work from an advocate for parental choice in education.
State Sen. AJ Griffin, R-Guthrie, and Rep. Tim Downing, R-Purcell, were named “Champions of Children” by Oklahoma’s ChoiceMatters group.
Robert Ruiz, president of ChoiceMatters for Kids and a leading proponent for programs and systems to allow more educational options for children and their families, presented the awards Thursday (July 6) in a ceremony at the Advance Center, adjacent to the offices of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), near the state Capitol building in Oklahoma City.
In a recent press release sent to The City Sentinel and other news organizations, Ruiz said that despite a difficult budget year marked by partisan gridlock, legislators managed to work together on two key bills that will increase resources for the education of low income children, including those in state custody.
Ruiz said that over 1000 parents worked with ChoiceMatters for Kids to send over 15,000 emails, letters or phone calls to the State Capitol on behalf of those bills and other school choice policies.
Senate Bill 301 – the measure on which Downey and Griffin were key managers and sponsors – expands the successful Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarship program. Currently, LNH scholarships are available to children with special needs, helping families to cover the cost of private school tuition if that is their preferred option.
S.B. 301 expands that eligibility to children in foster care and children adopted out of the foster system. It is the largest expansion of the LNH program since its creation in 2010.
“LNH scholarships have already been used by thousands of parents to find schools that are the right fit for their children with special needs,” said Ruiz. “Legislation passed this year will extend that opportunity to foster families and children who may have been the victims of abuse or neglect. These are children who may have needs that their local public school can’t address. Lawmakers absolutely did the right thing by increasing the educational resources available to them.”
Ruiz said the bill also removes barriers to adoption or foster care for guardians interested in private school.
“I have heard directly from adults who want to foster or adopt but are worried about their local school’s ability to care for a vulnerable child in a new home,” said Ruiz. “This bill gives them the means to find the right school for a child who might be facing difficult circumstances.”
For Sen. Griffin, S.B. 301 was a proposal allied with her work on child welfare and better living conditions for children under state care. She was also the guide and shepherd for Senate Bill 727, a measure with provisions aiming (in the words of a Senate staff press release) to “Ensure a more collaborative process between parents and DHS and more actively engage parents around decisions involving child placement.”
The new law will, that summary states, “Increase support and resources for foster parents and strengthen the Foster Parents Bill of Rights.”
The underlying legal philosophy bolstering the LNH Scholarship program through S.B. 301 was ruled constitutional in a unanimous Oklahoma state Supreme Court decision issued in 2016 . Ruiz pointed out that S.B. 301, with Griffin and Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, as lead sponsors, passed unanimously in both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin on May 12.
A second measure Ruiz deemed historic is Senate Bill 445, which increases the cap on tax credits provided through the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act. The bill enacts incentives for Oklahomans to donate to scholarship funds that support children in low income households.
“If you want to help lift children out of poverty, one of the best ways to do it is to support a top-tier education for them,” said Ruiz. “We should absolutely be encouraging taxpayers to support their fellow Oklahomans in this way, and S.B. 445 does that.”
Gov. Fallin signed S.B. 445 into law on May 16. The lead sponsors for the measure were Sens. Dan Newhouse, R-Tulsa, and Rob Standridge, R-Norman, with Rep. Kevin Calvey, R-Oklahoma City, guiding the measure through the lower chamber.
Ruiz said the two bills passed this year show that momentum continues to build for supporters of school choice, which includes everything from pro-charter school policies to universal Education Savings Accounts that give parents control over a portion of their children’s education tax dollars.
“Oklahomans understand that, ultimately, this is about recognizing the right of parents to have control over their child’s education and giving them as many tools and options as possible to find the best fit,” said Ruiz. “We don’t believe any child should be trapped in a failing school or a school that isn’t right for them. Parents are reaching out to deliver that message to legislators every day, and they are listening with a sympathetic ear – because they are parents, too.”