Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a Montana Supreme Court decision in an effort to protect religious school options for parents participating in state scholarship and voucher programs.
A coalition of state attorneys general and governors from 17 other states also signed the brief, which argues that if the ruling in Montana is not reversed, it could lead to other state courts’ interpreting laws on similar scholarship programs in a similar manner.
“The ruling by the Montana Supreme Court discriminates against and punishes parents who choose to send their children to religious schools,” Hunter said. “If upheld, it has far-reaching consequences that could threaten school choice programs nationwide, depriving religious, low-income and disabled children of a quality education of their choice. My colleagues and I encourage the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse this decision for the benefit of the families across the nation who rely on these programs.”
Montana’s program, enacted by its Legislature in 2015, gave a tax credit to taxpayers who donated to a private scholarship organization. The organization then awarded scholarships to eligible children attending private schools.
A number of states have enacted similar school choice programs.
The state of Oklahoma itself funds private school scholarships for students with disabilities through the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program for Children with Disabilities. The voucher program was named for the daughter of former Gov. Brad Henry.
Participation in the Lindsey Nicole Henry program by students and private schools has grown exponentially year after year.
As a comparison, five years ago, the Oklahoma State Department of Education budgeted $3.5 million for the 2015-16 academic year.
In 2018-19, the Education Department paid out $5.8 million for 826 students. Of that total, $3.6 million went to religious schools for 611 students, according to Steffie Corcoran, an Education Department spokeswoman.
For 2019-20, up to $8 million has been budgeted. Some 982 students have already been approved, and applications are still being accepted through Dec. 1.
Of the 68 private schools approved by the Oklahoma State Board of Education to accept Lindsey Nicole Henry funds, 59 schools — or 87% — are religious.
Also, in 2011, the Legislature passed the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act, which offers generous tax credits to individuals or corporations making financial donations to a “scholarship granting organization,” or SGO.
SGOs created since then include the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, the Catholic Schools Opportunity Scholarship Fund and the Islamic School Foundation.
Joining Oklahoma on Hunter’s brief are the attorneys general of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia, and the governors of Kentucky and Mississippi.