State Supreme Court, denies legal standing to school districts, special needs scholarships sustained

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma state Supreme Court on Tuesday (November 20) ruled 7-2 that the Jenks and Union Public School Districts in northeast Oklahoma did not have legal standing to sue parents of special needs children during efforts to spike the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program. 

In a key portion of the brief ruling, Vice Chief Justice Tom Colbert wrote: “The funds at issue are not taxes from taxpayers in the districts’ county revenue streams that a county assessor is improperly reducing or disposing of, but part of the Legislature’s general grant to the districts, through the State Department of Education. Because the school districts are not the ones charged with the duty to provide free public education, the Legislature’s withholding of certain funds, even if it is unconstitutional, does not violate a constitutionally protected interest of the school districts themselves, because they are merely the Legislature’s vehicle.”
Concurring with Colbert’s reasoning were Justices Yvonne Kauger, Joseph Watt, James Winchester, John Reif, Doug Combs and Noma Gurich. 

A brief dissent came from Chief Justice Steven Taylor and Justice James Edmondson, who said, “The constitutional issue has been fairly joined.” They were both willing to decide the underlying issues of the case. 

Colbert argued, “the parents are clearly not the proper parties against whom to assert these constitutional challenges. We hold that the school districts have neglected to meet the threshold standing requirement for constitutional challenges.”

The two school districts had argued the Henry Scholarships were unconstitutional, and that the program violated several provisions of the state constitution. Colbert wrote, “Because the school districts lack standing/justiciable issues to sue parents of students for the issuance of state dollars from the State Department of Education to the parents for payments to private schools, we deny the motion for oral argument and deny all applications for amicus curiae briefs.”

The two districts won a controversial victory on March 27, when a district judge in Tulsa granted summary judgment against the parents of special needs children accessing the program. 

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK Tuesday evening, said, ““From the beginning, we believed it was improper for these school districts to sue the parents of special needs children simply for following the law. We are pleased Oklahoma’s Supreme Court agreed, and ruled that these school districts lacked standing to make their claims against the children’s families. The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Act is the law and districts must follow the law.”

State Rep. Jason Nelson, the Oklahoma City Republican who shepherded the program for special needs children through the Legislature in 2010, commented, “The families who have been sued by the Jenks and Tulsa Union school districts for using the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program have even more reason to be thankful this Thanksgiving weekend.

“The decision by the Oklahoma Supreme Court validates what I and many other people have been saying since the lawsuit was filed – that the school districts lack standing and that their vindictive actions against these parents were without merit. I am grateful to the attorneys who have stood with these parents for their hard work and effective legal defense of the scholarship program.

“As recently as last week, I received an emotional e-mail from a parent who detailed how being able to use the scholarship has changed their child’s life for the better. I’ve never doubted that we were right on the law and it’s nice to have the confirmation of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. This is a program that saves the public school system money while benefiting children with special needs by giving them more educational options that meet their unique needs. Today’s ruling will allow these families to breathe a sigh of relief after months of uncertainty.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi said, “I applaud the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision today to discontinue the challenge to the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program. This is a victory for students with disabilities throughout our state and for their families. This also is a victory for education choice in Oklahoma.”

Also cheering the decision was Brandon Dutcher, policy vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. He told CapitolBeatOK, “OCPA has said from the beginning that it’s outrageous for superintendents making roughly a quarter-million dollars annually to sue the parents of autistic children. The government ought not to sue citizens for doing what they have every right to do. Here’s hoping these parents and their children have a very happy Thanksgiving.”

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