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Stitt to have final say on private school voucher transparency

Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks during the Oklahoma State Department of Education third annual trauma summit at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020.   [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]
Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks during the Oklahoma State Department of Education third annual trauma summit at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]

A bill asking for more information on private school voucher recipients is heading to the governor’s desk.

On Tuesday, the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed the final version of House Bill 1230, which supporters said would expand transparency for the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarship program. Only 17 representatives, all Republican, voted against the bill.

Lindsey Nicole Henry, a program named after former Gov. Brad Henry’s daughter, was established in 2010 to send students with disabilities to private schools that were better suited to serve their individual needs.

The program has grown significantly in the past decade, and now students without special-education needs receive state-funded scholarships to private schools.

HB 1230 would identify the number and amount of scholarships awarded to each participating private school. The bill requires the number of scholarships denied and suspended to become publicly available, as well.

The state would report data on scholarship recipients broken down by grade level, disability category, gender, economically disadvantaged status, racial and ethnic groups, and years of participation in the program.

This information would be publicly available on the Oklahoma State Department of Education website.

Nearly $5.8 million went to Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarships last school year, state data shows. Preliminary scholarship information showed the program grew this year to 1,000 participants receiving an estimated $7.4 million.

The Legislature has dedicated more than $31 million to the program since 2011.

Public school advocates have complained the state has been distributing voucher funds while receiving little information about who those scholarships are serving.

The scholarships also remove dollars from public-school funding, said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. State education funds are distributed per-student, so schools lose out when children leave for private schools.

“It now generates about $8 million for students attending private schools,” Hime said. “That comes directly from state aid funding. We can no longer consider it a pilot program, and we need to make sure we have transparency for those dollars.”

Much of the program’s growth came in 2017 when students in state custody, including children in foster care, were added as eligible recipients.

Parents must choose from a list of 67 approved private schools. Approved schools are available across the state, but a majority are religious schools in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City areas.

HB 1230 was first introduced during the 2019 legislative session.

Lindsey Nicole Henry is one of two private school voucher programs that the state government finances. The Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Tax Credit is a $5 million program that sends low-income students to private schools.

Gov. Kevin Stitt has proposed a $25 million increase to the scholarship tax credit program. His budget proposal to the Legislature didn’t include additional funds for Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarships.

However, other bills filed in the Legislature would expand eligibility for the program. One such bill would allow children with an incarcerated parent to apply for state funds to attend private school. That bill is still in the House Education Appropriation and Budget Subcommittee.

Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel joined The Oklahoman in 2019. She found a home at the newspaper while interning in summer 2016 and 2017. Nuria returned to The Oklahoman for a third time after working a year and a half at the Sedalia Democrat in Sedalia,... Read more ›