At the end of the Oklahoma legislative session in May, Oklahoma took a giant step in improving the educational opportunities of special-needs children. The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act passed both houses. Gov. Brad Henry, despite tremendous pressure from the education establishment, signed the bill into law.
Before passage of this bill, the parents of children with special needs had few options in determining their child’s education unless they were among the few wealthy enough to pay for private opportunities. This bill now empowers those parents with a choice. If they are satisfied with the quality of the special-needs education their child is receiving from the public school in their district, they can remain where they are. But if they believe a better quality education that fits their child’s needs is available elsewhere, they can take the same amount of money that the school district would have spent on their child or the amount of the school’s tuition, whichever is less, and provide a scholarship for their child to attend a qualified private school of their choice.
In Florida and four other states with similar programs, the children’s test scores and their parents’ satisfaction with their child’s education have skyrocketed. These programs succeed because when parents have a choice, competition produces higher quality in education, as it does in all areas of our free-enterprise system.
In the next session of the Legislature, a tax credit scholarship act — similar to the bill introduced last session by Sen. Dan Newberry and Reps. Jabar Shumate and Lee Denney — would further expand parental choice and educational competition. Legislation of this sort would allow individuals and companies to receive tax credits when they donate to education scholarships for lower-income children from 4 years old to 12th-grade.
On a trip to Pennsylvania last year, members of the Oklahoma School Choice Coalition saw a similar law in action. These scholarships are funding low-cost, high-quality schools where children who were once condemned to attend an underperforming school now have an opportunity for a better life. We saw scholarship schools educating children from disadvantaged homes for about half the cost of the public schools. These children were achieving high test scores and 100 percent college placement. The public schools also improved as competition compelled reforms. We have seen Catholic and other Christian schools deliver similar results at similar costs in Oklahoma and nationwide, but in states without tax credit scholarships they are limited to serving those who can afford to pay.
The Oklahoma School Choice Coalition will expand its activities during the next year, educating the public about the benefits of school choice and involving more individuals and groups in our coalition.
Today Oklahoma can be proud that it is now a leader in special-needs educational reform. We see a future in which Oklahoma is a leader in all areas of educational reform and provides through school choice a quality education for all children.
BILL PRICE is an attorney in Oklahoma City and chairman of the Oklahoma School Choice Coalition. He serves as a trustee of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, which distributed this column.