Three cheers for school choice in Oklahoma

February 17, 2016 | By RAYMOND NHAN

school_choice2Yesterday, in Oliver v. Hofmeister, the Oklahoma Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship, a school choice program that provides scholarship vouchers to students with disabilities. The scholarship program helps parents send their child to a private school that is better-suited than public schools to meet the needs of disabled children. Fifty-one schools and 377 students participated in this scholarship program in the 2014-15 school year.

The plaintiffs, taxpayers living in Oklahoma, challenged the scholarship program by alleging that it violated its state constitution. They alleged that Article II, Section 5 of Oklahoma’s Constitution bans public money from being spent at sectarian institutions. Article II, Section 5 is a Blaine Amendment. I have previously posted about Blaine Amendments, which are state constitutional provisions adopted in the 19th Century to discriminate against Catholics. An Oklahoma trial court partially agreed with the plaintiffs, and held that money from the scholarship program could only be used at non-religious schools; no scholarship could be used at a religious institution.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court reversed and held that the entire program was constitutional: scholarship money can be spent at both religious and non-religious schools. The court explained that the scholarship program “is completely neutral with regard to religion.” Any scholarship that is used at a religious school is “the sole result of the parent’s independent decision completely free from state influence.” It further explained that schools receiving voucher funds are approved by meeting non-religious educational standards. According to the Court, the program’s religiously-neutral standards show that the state did not violate Article II, Section 5.

Oliver is crucial for other potential school choice programs in the Sooner State. Oklahoma is currently considering whether to create a school voucher program for all of its students. Before Oliver was decided, state officials were hesitant to create a new voucher program because they were unsure whether it would violate Oklahoma’s constitution. This case should limit potential legal hurdles if Oklahoma does decide to expand school choice.