ALEC-Supported Disability Scholarship Program Challenged in Oklahoma, Threatens Public Schools and Church-State Separation

In June 2010 the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act was signed into law in Oklahoma. The law allows parents of disabled students—without regard to financial need— to take funds appropriated to public schools and divert them to help pay for private school education.

But five counties in the state voted not to process the scholarships, correctly viewing them as a threat to public education, and now face lawsuits from parents of some disabled students. Two districts, Jenks and Union, responded with a countersuit the following September, pointing out that the act violates the state constitution because it uses public money to fund sectarian schools, in violation of the state constitution’s so-called "Blaine Amendment," which forbids using public money to support religious entities. They explained that public schools are adversely affected by the act as it drains their resources, and that public schools have the constitutional right to protect their revenues. The districts also showed that the law allows for the use of public funds that do not serve a public purpose, again in violation of the state constitution. They demonstrated that this is the case both because the law fails to restrict the use of state funds by private schools to secular purposes and because it requires that recipient students forgo protections granted to them by the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

On March 27, 2012 Tulsa County Judge Rebecca Nightingale sided with the school districts, ruling the law unconstitutional, though a stay was granted pending appeal.

A timeline detailing the events of the case can be found here.

The Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty represented the litigating parents. This organization describes its mission as to "defend the religious rights of people" of all faiths. Such a firm should support the protection of minority religious rights by restricting state support of religion. Yet, curiously, the group is opposed to Blaine Amendments, referring to Oklahoma’s as a "bigoted provision that targets religious groups." This opposition to the separation of church and state is perhaps unsurprising once one discovers that the firm is supported by right-wing organizations including notorious ALEC bankrollers the Koch Family Foundations, who are known to envisage a country in which right-wing religion and politics are intimately intertwined.

In fact, the law has ALEC footprints all over it. The wording of the bill is strikingly similar, and at points identical to, the model "Special Needs Scholarship Program Act" passed by the ALEC Education Task Force. That Task Force is chaired by Mickey Revenaugh of Connections Academy. Connections Academy is a division of Connections Education, a multi-billion dollar corporation that profits hugely from the transfer of taxpayer funds from public to private educators. ALEC’s legislative success is no surprise, as two of the bill’s sponsors are alternates on the Task Force. Many other legislators in the state have overt ALEC ties.

The Special Needs Scholarship Program push is part of a larger nationwide effort by ALEC and its supporters to privatize education by swiping taxpayer dollars from public schools and passing them to private ones. Programs are often targeted toward sympathetic groups (such as children with special needs), which helps proponents gain a foot in the door toward a more widespread privatization of education. A similar program has been enacted in Georgia and another is making its way through the legislature in Wisconsin.

As Steve Klingaman at Salon puts it:

ALEC’s true vision is […] corporate control of the classroom. The equivalent of competition between MacDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s; that, after all, is the final-stage outcome of the realization of ALEC’s vision for American education. The goal is to make education safe for duopoly capitalism with taxpayers footing the bill.

The scholarship program is also being pushed by the Religious Right, who want taxpayer dollars to be spent on private schools that lack state academic standards. At such schools children can be taught creationism and other sectarian ideas.

The Oklahoma case is now being appealed to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma, where some legal experts expect the law to be upheld despite what they say are its clear constitutional violations.

ALEC continues to magnify corporate influence on the government of Oklahoma, with disastrous consequences for everyday citizens. ALEC’s status as a corporate agent is clear; it receives only 2% of its funding from dues from its member legislators. The rest comes from corporations: from corporate ‘foundations’ like the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, and from corporate-funded trade associations like PhRMA .

In May of 2013, ALEC will hold its Spring Task Force Summit right in the heart of the state in Oklahoma City. There, behind closed doors, corporate lobbyists and ALEC legislators will vote as equals on adopting ‘model legislation’ like the "Special Needs Scholarship Act" – legislation that benefits corporations and not the American people.

PFAW Foundation