foster children

(Editor’s note: This story was authored by Jennifer Palmer of Oklahoma Watch and appears here in accordance with the non-profit journalism organization’s republishing terms.)

Foster children will soon be able to receive state funds to attend private school.

The change represents the first time that a state school voucher program, the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program, has been expanded beyond students who are disabled or have special-needs. It could foreshadow future efforts to open the program up to more children.

The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program, created in 2010, gives parents of students with disabilities funds to pay for private school tuition and other educational expenses. In the 2016-2017 school year, parents of 520 children received a total of just over $2.5 million to pay the costs.

This year’s changes, which go into effect Sept. 1, expand eligibility to foster children, adopted foster children and children in custody of the Office of Juvenile Affairs. The students are eligible if they have an “individualized services plan,” which all foster children receive within 30 days of being removed from home. State officials said a relatively small number of students will be affected.

The expansion came about through Senate Bill 301, and was signed by Gov. Mary Fallin in May.

Under current law, families can receive the scholarship funds only if their child attended a public school the previous year and was on an individualized education plan, meaning they were designated as special needs, or disabled. The new law exempts from that requirement those in foster care or the custody of the Office of Juvenile Affairs or Department of Human Services. Previously, some children with disabilities in DHS custody had been denied scholarships because of the prior year requirement, department spokesman Sheree Powell said.

The Office of Juvenile Affairs has not yet attempted to use the program.

Sen. AJ Griffin (R-Guthrie) who authored the bill, said the intent is to recognize that foster children often have mental health conditions that don’t necessarily result in a disability diagnosis.

“Kids from care that have suffered significant trauma may do fine on a math test, but may have an emotional issue that prohibits them from functioning in a traditional environment,” Griffin said. “It allows opportunities for those special children that may not meet the current definition of education special needs.”

Griffin said she doesn’t plan to propose expanding the program to other subgroups of children, though other legislators might. The bill’s co-author, Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) also pushed a proposal this year to create education savings accounts, which give parents a portion of the state funding used to educate their child to spend on private school tuition or other qualifying expenses. The bill died in committee but will likely be brought back in 2018.

Other states have approved programs that were incrementally expanded to include additional students. For instance, Arizona’s scholarship program was implemented for students with disabilities and was gradually scaled up to include many other subgroups, such as those in military families and at low-performing schools. This year, Arizona legislators approved expanding eligibility to all 1.1 million students.

Opponents of voucher programs say they drain critical funds from public schools, where the majority of children are educated, and send public money to private, often religious, schools.

Broader education savings account proposals have so far been unsuccessful in Oklahoma, facing opposition from public education advocates and lawmakers representing rural areas.

The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program was challenged in court but upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2016. Opponents argued in part that the program would re-direct public funds to religious schools. Last year, about 60 percent of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships provided, or just under $1.5 million, was spent at religious schools, according to the state Education Department.