One of the worst decisions Brad Henry made as Oklahoma governor was to sign into law the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act.
Wait, a bill named for his late daughter, who died of a rare neuromuscular disease as an infant? One of the worst?
Yes. Here's why: Nearly three years after Henry's second term ended, this voucher scheme continues to haunt the taxpayers and public education.
Last week, Oklahomans learned that yet again, their tax dollars would be spent defending a lawsuit challenging a constitutionally-dubious law that diverts public money from public education into private religious schools.
The state Constitution says this is a no-no. But who knows how long this could take, or how much it might cost?
To make matters worse, just weeks before the lawsuit was filed, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a new study showing Oklahoma has cut the public education budget more than any other state since 2008 -- per pupil funding has been axed by 22.8 percent.
So let's connect the dots:
Our august lawmakers not only decided to take money away from our starving public schools and steer it into private, for-profit or religious schools, but they also imposed the deepest funding cuts in the nation, all while declaring their devotion to public education.
Hip waders, please.
This is the kind of rhetorical flimflammery that besmirches a noble profession (public service) and renders our elected class bottom feeders in public opinion surveys.
With such craven double-speak, it's no wonder our hard-working, poorly paid, underappreciated public school teachers often feel like punching bags.
The voucher movement is driven primarily by an Anti-Public Ed Axis of Evil: corporatists who view schools as potential profit centers, theocrats who want children in religious schools where Bible teaching is mandated, and far-right groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council that despise public services.
What might their priorities be?
The corporatists are about making bank. The theocrats seek to destroy America's pluralistic tradition, replacing it with a Taliban-style religious doctrine. And the wingnuts want to destroy government as we know it, ushering in an Ayn Rand-esque era that ensures the rich get richer and the rest of us are relegated to serfdom.
In case you haven't noticed, the pro-voucher crowd often attacks public education as "government schools." Translation: Godless indoctrination centers.
Then they employ the slickest sales pitch big money can buy, invoking flowery, high-sounding rhetoric about the wonders of school "choice:" All families, not just the rich, deserve a "choice." The poor whose children attend "failing" public schools deserve a "choice." Who could be against "choice?"
First, studies clearly show voucher experiments across the country have failed to improve educational outcomes (See, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Louisiana, just to name three).
Second, vouchers steal money from already underfunded public schools -- which is part of the "choice" movement's scheme to make public education a failed enterprise.
Third, most of the money goes not to poor kids in "failing" districts, but to students already attending private institutions.
Fourth, vouchers don't fix the primary reason that urban schools struggle: poverty.
Last year, 220 Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships were awarded to special needs students, diverting $1.3 million of your tax dollars from public to private education -- a jump from 148 scholarships and $936,000 the year before.
That may not sound like much compared to the $1.8 billion earmarked in the state budget for education.
But it allows the proverbial camel's nose to sneak under the tent.
The anti-public ed forces are relentless. The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship is a first step toward abolishing public schools altogether.
Alarmist? No, realist.
School districts are so strapped financially that any money siphoned away -- even $1.3 million -- isn't chump change.
As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, Oklahoma's spending on public education has been cut by nearly one-quarter since 2008, translating into an $810 per student decrease. Multiply that by 675,000 students, and it's easy to see why class sizes are exploding, schools have to beg on-line for donated supplies, and teachers are being laid off.
That is why the lawsuit challenging the voucher scheme is so frustrating -- and so important. It's frustrating because precious tax dollars are being wasted on a wholly unnecessary suit. Important because Oklahoma must reverse course and begin rebuilding its public education funding or risk being a Mississippi-style afterthought for generations to come.
By the way, here's what the state Constitution says, clearly and unambiguously, about directing state funds to religious purposes:
"No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such."
This is the second challenge to the Lindsey Nicole Henry voucher scheme. An earlier case mounted by the Union and Jenks school districts was tossed out by the state Supreme Court -- not because it lacked merit, but because the state's highest court ruled the districts do not have standing to sue. Taxpayers do.
So isn't it interesting that the dozen taxpayers who stepped forward this time are among Oklahoma's finest, including former Jenks Superintendent Kirby Lehman, Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry Executive Director Rev. Ray Hickman, and former Broken Arrow Superintendent Clarence G. Oliver Jr., dean emeritus and professor at Oral Roberts University's College of Education?
They know what's at stake. They know the corporatists, theocrats and wingnuts will not rest until the teachers' unions are destroyed and every child is forced into a for-profit school, church school or homeschool.
They also know that everything America -- and Oklahoma -- is or ever hopes to be depends on the success of public schools that welcome all, regardless of ability or disability, wealth or poverty, race or religion, gender or sexual preference.
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