Patrick B. McGuigan and Stacy Martin
Two statewide elected officials have decried the decision of Judge Rebecca Brett Nightingale, issued at the behest of the Jenks and Union Public School Districts, intended to shut down the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program for special needs children.
A Democratic state representative this afternoon applauded the jurist’s edict, issued verbally, while the vice president of a leading policy think tank said it was a temporary setback in the march toward “educational freedom.”
Attorneys for parents in the two districts, individuals directly affected by the decision, said they would seek a stay of the order, and appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s spokeswoman, Diane Clay, said in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, “We're disappointed in the trial court's decision, and will appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court where we're hopeful the law will be upheld. The Attorney General's Office will continue to defend the constitutionality of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship and its benefits for children with disabilities.”
Patrick Wyrick, solicitor general for Oklahoma and a top member of Pruitt’s legal team, argued in favor of the constitutionality of the legislation at this morning’s hearing before Judge Nightingale at the Tulsa County Court House.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi also commented in late afternoon, saying, “While I am disappointed in today's district-level ruling and the undue stress and burden it has placed on families with special needs children, I also understand this is not the end of the story. I fully anticipate these families will move forward quickly with an appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. I am confident the facts of the case will prevail, and this incorrect ruling will be overturned."
State Rep. Ed Cannaday, a Porum Democrat who opposed the scholarship program when it passed in 2010, deemed it a “voucher” system and commended Judge Nightingale’s decision.
Cannaday said, in comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, “I am glad to see that the legal process is working in this case to invalidate a law that is part of the Republicans’ war on public education. I have often stated that privatization of education benefits the select few, and not all of our citizens.”
He asserted, “Public education is a right, and that right is endangered by laws that allow private institutions to utilize state funds. Private schools are not accountable under the democratic process, but every citizen can vote for school officials such as the Superintendent of Public Instruction.”
From the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), came the statement of Vice President Brandon Dutcher, who commented, "The fact that the government can use taxpayer dollars to sue law-abiding citizens — especially the parents of special-needs children — is nothing short of appalling, and should be of great concern to all Oklahomans.
"At a time when educational freedom is advancing in Oklahoma and throughout the U.S., this temporary setback is disappointing. The research continues to show that school choice improves public schools and saves taxpayers money — all while rescuing the children who need it most. Given that track record, a minor setback like today’s isn’t going to thwart the continued march toward educational freedom."
Dutcher was among about 20 spectators in court to watch this morning’s proceedings. About half of attendees were professional staff from the two taxpayer-financed districts that sued the parents of special needs children benefitting from the program.
The law passed the Legislature in 2010. The lead sponsor of the legislation, state Rep. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City, has promised to defend the measure and the families who have benefitted from its provisions.