Matt D. Hopkins
Special to The Sun
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a weekly series of columns written by attorneys at Lester, Loving & Davies law firm in Edmond.
Q: We heard that the state has grant money available to help pay private school tuition for children with disabilities. We also heard that a court stopped the program. Do you know if the funds are available?
A: The Oklahoma Legislature passed the Lindsey Nichole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program Act in 2010. The act provides scholarship funds for some children with disabilities who are on Individual Education Plans, or IEPs. If a student qualifies, the State Department of Education reallocates the funds that the child’s public school would spend on his education to a qualifying private school of the parents’ choice. Applications for the program are available from the State Department of Education.
Jenks and Union school districts sued a few parents who had children participating in the program. The schools claimed the act violates the Oklahoma Constitution in a variety of ways. The Tulsa County District Court ruled, without much explanation, that the act is unconstitutional. This week, however, the Oklahoma Supreme Court reversed course. The legislation remains in effect, and the funds remain available to qualifying children who apply.
The arguments made in the case are far too complex to address in short order. The districts argued that the act violates the Oklahoma Constitution in a variety of ways, and the parents argued that the act is fully constitutional. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ultimately refrained from ruling on the constitutional issues. Rather, the court found that it could not make any such ruling because the school districts lacked standing to bring the lawsuit.
Legal standing is essentially the right of a party to participate in a lawsuit — one’s right to stand in the courtroom. Only parties with standing can participate. To have standing in a suit, a party must prove: (1) that it has a concrete and particular injury that is actual or imminent; (2) that its injury is caused by the alleged misconduct; and (3) that it has a protected interest within zone that is protected by a statute or the Constitution.
The court held that the school districts have no constitutionally protected interest that can be litigated. It ruled that the Oklahoma Legislature, not individual school districts, is constitutionally charged with providing a system of education. Local school districts are merely the Legislature’s vehicle to that end. Because the districts have no protected interest, they lack standing and the constitutional issues cannot be determined.
MATT D. HOPKINS is an attorney for Lester, Loving & Davies P.C. More information is available at lldlaw.com. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.