Attorney General Pruitt instructs districts to implement Henry Scholarships by Monday

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published 19-Jan-2011

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt today (Wednesday, January 19) instructed four public school districts to begin implementation of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act by Monday, January 24.
Pruitt’s letter went to leaders of the Broken Arrow, Jenks, Union and Liberty schools. Under counsel of the controversial law firm of Rosenstein Fist Ringold, the districts have defied implementation of the law, which passed the Legislature last spring and was signed into law by Governor Brad Henry with the support of former Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett.
In his letter, a copy of which was obtained by CapitolBeatOK, the attorney general told the offending districts the law was designed to empower “parents of children with disabilities for whom an individualized education program is required …, to exercise an option to obtain scholarship monies from the local school district in which they reside to fund their child’s enrollment and attendance in a private school approved by the State Department of Education.”
Pruitt said he had been informed “though eligible parents” that the districts in question had “chosen to disregard” duties under the act. He said, “I am also informed that your decision is continuing in force and effect as of the date of this correspondence [January 18].”
Pruitt wrote, “Laws enacted by the Legislature express the collective will of the People of Oklahoma, are presumed Constitutional, and no executive officer has the right to simply ignore the directives contained in such laws. In this State, only the Courts may authoritatively determine the Constitutionality of our laws. It is the duty of public officers to obey such laws unless and until such laws are determined by Courts to be unconstitutional. Willful neglect or disobedience to performing duties established by Law exposes you and members of your Board of Education to legal liabilities, both official and personal.”
Pruitt concluded the communication by writing, “unless you notify me by no later than Monday, January 24 … that you will discontinue your present course, and promptly execute the duties of your School District set forth in the Act and promptly give scholarships for the period for which they were requested, I will take such legal action available to me as Attorney General of Oklahoma as appropriate to enforce the requirements of law.”
The letter was signed “E. Scott Pruitt, Attorney General of Oklahoma.”
In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK Wednesday afternoon, Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi said:
“Over the past several weeks, I have urged the school districts defying state law to reverse their positions. Attorney General Pruitt and I have consulted on this serious matter.
“I am pleased that Attorney General Pruitt has now weighed in and taken this action today, bringing the full weight of state authority to bear in this matter.
“The school districts that have acted in defiance of state law have now been given the chance to do the right thing. They should take immediate action to reverse their positions, and I urge them to move forward quickly.”
State Rep Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City, sponsor of the special needs law, also sent a statement to CapitolBeatOK, saying:
“I think that the remaining school boards have had more than enough time to change their position in favor of the law and clearly Attorney General Pruitt thinks so, too.
“It was the stated intention of the school boards to end up in court over House Bill 3393 [the legislative designation of the Henry Scholarships]. Judging from the letter from Attorney General Pruitt, it appears that these board members and their superintendents may get their wish – but for a much different reason than they anticipated.
“I’m hopeful that the four school boards that are currently in noncompliance will revisit their position soon and follow the Tulsa, Owasso and Bixby school boards in reversing the votes they cast last fall. If they do not, I fully support the Attorney General pursuing legal action against the school board members and superintendents to the fullest extent of the law.
“This is good news for those parents whose hopes of using the scholarships to place their children in other schools were dashed last fall.”