Parents Say Low Blow, Schools Look At Bigger Picture in Special Needs Suit

Wednesday, September 7th 2011, 6:47 pm
By: News On 6

Ashli Sims and Emory Bryan, News on 6

TULSA, Oklahoma -- Jenks and Union school districts are suing five sets of parents over special education scholarships.

9/5/2011 Related Story: Green Country Schools Sue Parents Over Special Needs Voucher Law

The two Green Country school districts say House Bill 3393 is unconstitutional, because it uses public money to pay for private school tuition for special needs students.

Read The Lawsuit

The author of that law calls this suit "frivolous, cruel and misguided."

The handful of families targeted by the lawsuit find themselves defending the state law. At least one is waiting for legal advice before speaking publicly, but other families are speaking for them.

Last year a family in Owasso was at odds with the school district over the scholarship, but now the district is paying the private school and is not suing the parents.

11/8/2010 Related Story: Parents Fight For Special Needs Funding At Owasso School Board Meeting

Tom Farrall sympathizes with the families being sued because he knows it could have been him. His son Michael attends private school at taxpayer expense - and Farrall says the difference has been dramatic.

"It's made all the difference in the world. He hated school before, he had all kinds of anxiety about it and now he enjoys school. It's made a tremendous difference for us," Farrall said.

While his family is benefiting from the scholarships - and is not part of the new lawsuit - Farrall describes school districts suing their parents as a low blow.

"This is an issue bigger than a couple of students," said Union Superintendent, Dr. Cathy Burden.

School leaders say they thought the constitutional question would be settled when five sets of parents sued the school districts in federal court.

5/2/2011 Related Story: Parents Of Special Needs Students File Lawsuit Against Four Tulsa-Area School Districts

But that lawsuit was put on hold when the State Department of Education stepped in and paid the scholarships. Now, those same parents are the ones being sued.

"We are pursuing unfortunately a lawsuit against parents just in order to get this in front of an appropriate court," Dr. Burden said.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the law firm that represented the parents in the federal lawsuit, released a statement saying, "Unfortunately, it seems that these school districts care more about their money than helping the parents of special needs children."

School leaders say that law firm is advancing an agenda.

Two of the parents who sued in federal court used their scholarships to pay for religious schools. And both Jenks and Union schools say that's a violation of the separation of church and state.

"That public taxpayer dollars may not be used for private, sectarian purposes," said Dr. Kirby Lehman, Jenks Superintendent.

The author of the special education scholarship law says only 53 students are getting the scholarships and its costing the state less than $200,000.

Jenks and Union's superintendents argue that because the law doesn't require students to remain on a special education plan to get the scholarship, it opens the door for regular education students to ask for these scholarships also.