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Originally posted November 20, 2012
The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision today (11-20-12) in the school voucher program lawsuit did not address the issue of constitutionality of vouchers in this state. Rather, the Court refused to rule on the constitutional issues solely on the basis of who can sue and who can be sued when challenging the constitutionality of a law. This decision clearly leaves open the constitutional issues raised by both school districts. Two of the justices dissented saying “[t]he constitutional issue has been fairly joined” and that they “would decide the issue.”
Unfortunately, the majority chose to not address the constitutional issues.
The Union and Jenks School District Superintendents and Boards of Education will review the Supreme Court decision and make a determination in the near future as to any potential future action.
Dr. Cathy Burden, Superintendent
Union Public Schools
Dr. Kirby Lehman, Superintendent
Jenks Public Schools
Supreme court tosses challenge to Lindsey Nicole Henry law
BY KIM ARCHER Tulsa World Staff Writer
(Reprinted with Permission. This is not an endorsement.)
Read more: Read the Oklahoma Supreme Court decision on the Lindsey Nicole Henry law.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court threw out on Tuesday two school districts' constitutional challenge of a law that allows the use of public funds to send special-needs students to private schools.
In the 2 1/2 years the law has been in effect, it has stirred controversy over whether it violates the state constitution's ban on the use of public funds by private religious institutions.
In Tuesday's ruling, the state Supreme Court said the Union and Jenks public school districts do not have standing in the case because the "school districts are not taxpayers themselves, whom this Court has long recognized have a right to challenge the illegal expenditure of public funds."
"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," the ruling says.
The case began last year when Union and Jenks countersued the parents of five special-needs children to challenge the constitutionality of the law. In its ruling, the Supreme Court also said the school districts didn't sue the proper parties.
"The parents are clearly not the proper parties against whom to assert these constitutional challenges," the ruling says. "We hold that the school districts have neglected to meet the threshold standing requirement for constitutional challenges."
In a written statement, State Superintendent Janet Barresi said the ruling is a victory for education choice in Oklahoma.
"I applaud the Oklahoma Supreme Court's decision today to discontinue the challenge to the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program," she said. "This is a victory for students with disabilities throughout our state and for their families."
Rep. Jason Nelson, an Oklahoma City Republican and co-author of the law, told the Tulsa World the state Supreme Court did the right thing.
"I agree with their argument. The law was on our side. The Supreme Court has now recognized that and validated it. I think it's a shame that this happened at all," he said of the lawsuit.
Jenks Superintendent Kirby Lehman and Union Superintendent Cathy Burden noted that the decision did not address the issue of whether school vouchers are constitutional in Oklahoma.
"Rather, the court refused to rule on the constitutional issues solely on the basis of who can sue and who can be sued when challenging the constitutionality of a law," they said in a written statement.
Both school districts will review the decision and decide whether to take any further action, the statement says.
But Nelson said the court's action ends the case.
"They don't have standing to do anything. That's what the court is saying - that it's none of their business," he said. "It's over. The program continues. The decision of the district court judge is reversed. And we're back where we started with a good law that benefits kids."
In March, Tulsa District Court Judge Rebecca Nightingale ruled that the law was unconstitutional but left it intact until an appeal was considered.
Attorneys for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., later filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court on behalf of the parents of the five special-needs students. The group provided its legal services for free.
Becket attorneys argued in their brief to the state Supreme Court that the law would violate the state constitution's ban against using state funds for private sectarian uses only if the aid "is used by the state to promote religion or to discriminate on the basis of religion. The scholarship act does neither. It is religiously neutral in every respect."
On Tuesday, Eric Baxter, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said, "This is a great victory for both religious freedom and the disabled. The message from the Supreme Court today is unequivocal: These school districts should stop spending taxpayer dollars suing their most vulnerable students and focus on what they are supposed to be doing - teaching kids."
He continued, "Let's hope the school districts drop their paranoia that allowing disabled kids to go to a private religious school of their choice somehow creates an official state church for Oklahoma."
State Attorney General Scott Pruitt also released a statement late Tuesday praising the decision.
"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," he said. "The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Act is the law and (school) districts must follow the law."
The law was named after former Gov. Brad Henry's infant daughter who died from a rare neuromuscular disease. Henry signed the legislation into law in 2010.
House Bill 3393 timeline
June 2010: Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act, or House Bill 3393, is signed into law.
Fall 2010: Broken Arrow, Jenks, Liberty, Tulsa and Union school boards vote not to process the scholarships.
Jan. 18, 2011: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt threatens legal action against those school districts and individual board members if they fail to comply with the law within the week.
Jan. 24, 2011: Broken Arrow, Jenks, Liberty and Union school districts announce that they will sue Pruitt over the constitutionality of the law. They also vote to process scholarships under the law until a decision on its constitutionality is made.
April 2011: Twenty parents sue Broken Arrow, Jenks, Tulsa and Union school districts in Tulsa federal court, saying their special-needs children were denied private school scholarships in 2010-11.
May 2011: The state Legislature passes HB 1744, which transfers responsibility for administering the scholarship program from the districts to the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
July 2011: In light of that legislation, federal Chief U.S. District Judge Claire Eagan grants the parents a stay so they can pursue "administrative remedies" through the state Education Department. Eagan invites the school districts to file their challenge of HB 3393's constitutionality in state court.
September 2011: Jenks and Union school districts file a countersuit in state court to challenge the constitutionality of the law on behalf of all school districts. Their suit names the parents of students in each district who participated in the federal lawsuit against the schools.
November 2011: The federal lawsuit against the Broken Arrow, Jenks, Tulsa and Union school districts is dismissed at the parents' request.
March 27: Tulsa County District Judge Rebecca Nightingale strikes down the law, ruling it unconstitutional.
June 15: Attorneys for the parents appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Tuesday: Oklahoma Supreme Court throws out the case, ruling that the school districts did not have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the law.
News Archive on issues related to HB 3393
Response given regarding voucher case - November 24, 2012
State will rule on voucher issue - August 15, 2012
Districts call law unconstitutional - July 2, 2012
Voucher issue heads to State Suprene Court - June 20, 2012
Judge rules in favor of schools in lawsuit - March 28, 2012
Voucher law ruled unconstitutional - March 28, 2012
School voucher law ruled unconstitutional - March 28, 2012
District judge strikes down voucher law - March 27, 2012
District judge rules against school voucher law - March 27, 2012
Rural superintendent against school voucher - December 19, 2011
Parents claim vouchers are helping their kids - November 6, 2011
School voucher critics cite lack of credibility - November 6, 2011
Public funds used to send special-needs kids to private schools - October 23, 2011
Voucher law under scrutiny - October 23, 2011
Special-needs vouchers to top $700,000 - October 18, 2011
Union, Jenks repond to state criticism - September 29, 2011
Schools argue lawsuit claims 'untrue' - May 3, 2011
Parents of special needs students sue 4 districts - April 29, 2011
School daze - April 29, 2011
School boards to sue Attorney General - January 25, 2011
Union votes not comply with new law - October 12, 2010