Tulsa World- Union, Jenks school districts file lawsuit on vouchers
Ryan Colby 202-349-7219 firstname.lastname@example.org
“It is outrageous that these school districts are now suing parents simply for taking advantage of a scholarship opportunity that the state has now enacted twice,” said Eric N. Kniffin, legal counsel for the Becket Fund. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represents the defendants in the separate lawsuit in federal court.
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by: KIM ARCHER World Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 07, 2011
9/7/2011 10:24:05 AM
Union and Jenks school districts have filed a lawsuit in state court to challenge the constitutionality of a law that allows the use of public funds to send special-needs students to private schools.
In a petition filed in Tulsa County District Court Friday, the lawsuit names as defendants the parents of special-needs students who alleged in a federal lawsuit in April that the districts refused to provide scholarships last year for their children to attend private schools.
The school districts also are asking the court to declare Oklahoma’s Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act – or House Bill 3393 – and its subsequent amendments in HB 1744 unconstitutional and invalid.
“The voucher system that was put in place is going to be taking significant money from public schools. It not only isn’t in the best interest of all children in our public schools, it violates the tenets of our state constitution,” said Union Superintendent Cathy Burden.
But attorneys from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberties in Washington, D.C., said they believe the school districts’ action is more about money than helping parents of special-needs children.
“It is outrageous that these school districts are now suing parents simply for taking advantage of a scholarship opportunity that the state has now enacted twice,” said Eric N. Kniffin, legal counsel for the Becket Fund.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represents the defendants in the separate lawsuit in federal court.
According to the school districts’ petition, the laws violate the Oklahoma constitution’s prohibition of using public funds to aid, directly or indirectly, any sectarian institution, and of making a gift of public funds. The constitution also mandates that the state Legislature establish and maintain a system of free public schools, the petition said.
“(The laws mean) that every school district in the state will see its state aid reduced to pay for the cost of private school scholarships under HB 3393, regardless of whether a student from that school district applies for and receives a scholarship under HB 3393,” the petition said.
Burden said the sole intent of filing the lawsuit is to get a determination of the law’s constitutionality. Broken Arrow and Tulsa schools are not part of the lawsuit.
“We have filed this lawsuit on behalf of all students in the state of Oklahoma,” Burden said. “This is not a personal thing against the parents. The only way to get the situation resolved is to pursue a lawsuit.”
Jenks Superintendent Kirby Lehman said the Becket Fund’s agenda is to obtain public taxpayer funds for religious education.
“Such challenges around the country have not met with success,” he said. “The school districts and their legal counsel have not located a single case in which a state or federal court invalidated a ‘no-funding of religious schools’ provision in any state constitution.”
Lehman argues one of the purposes of the “no-funding” clause is to preserve religious liberty.
“It would be a travesty to tear down one of the bulwarks of religious liberty in the name of religion,” he said.
In April, 20 parents sued Broken Arrow, Jenks, Tulsa and Union schools for allegedly refusing to provide scholarships for their special-needs children to attend private schools. The school districts say all scholarship payments were made for 2010-11.
The state Legislature then passed HB 1744, which transfers the responsibility for administering the scholarship program to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, instead of the districts. That went into effect Aug. 26.
In light of that legislation, federal Chief Judge Claire Eagen in July granted the parents a stay so they could pursue “administrative remedies” through the state education department.
Eagen then invited the school districts to file their constitutionality challenge of HB 3393 in Tulsa County district court, adding it would be a “better means of resolving the controversy between the parties,” the petition said.
The lawsuit names only parents in Jenks and Union districts who sued them in April. They are Russell and Stephanie Spry, Tim and Kimberly Tylicki, Tim and Kristin Fisher, Stefan and Stephanie Hipskind, and Jerry and Shanna Sneed.
History of dispute
- Last fall, Jenks, Broken Arrow, Tulsa, Union and Liberty school boards voted not to process the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarships because they believe the law is unconstitutional.
- The school districts reversed course in January when Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt threatened legal action.
- The districts’ boards then voted to sue Pruitt over the constitutionality of using public funds to send disabled students to private schools.
- About a week after the districts voted to sue Pruitt, he launched an investigation based on parent complaints seeking the ouster of Tulsa, Union, Jenks and Broken Arrow school board members.
- Pruitt said he was required by law to investigate the complaints but subsequently ended the review, saying the statute did not include school board members.
- In April, 20 parents sued Broken Arrow, Jenks, Tulsa and Union schools, claiming their children with special needs were denied private-school scholarships under a new law.
- In July, federal judge agreed to parents’ request to put their lawsuit on hold so they could pursue “administrative remedies” from the state Education Department. She also suggested the school districts file their declaratory judgment action challenging the constitutionality of the law in state court