The Oklahoma legislature and its Democratic Governor adopted a law allowing disabled students to use public funds to attend a private school if they wished to do so. Similar laws have been passed in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Utah, and Arizona.
Disabled students have had to fight for decades to receive an adequate education from the public school system. Federal legislation, now called IDEA, was adopted in the mid-1970s to ensure an appropriate eduction for disabled students. Unfortunately, having a legal right to something and actually receiving it are two very different things and many disabled students continue to be denied appropriate services despite their legal entitlements.
That’s why several states have decided to empower families with disabled children with an additional mechanism by which they could ensure receiving an appropriate education — special education vouchers that would allow them to transfer to private schools if they believe that the public schools are not serving them adequately. Oklahoma is the latest state to offer these vouchers but it almost certainly won’t be the last as several other states are considering the idea. And there is good evidence that special education vouchers are significantly improving outcomes.
But, according to Education Week, four Oklahoma school districts have decided not to offer these vouchers that are required by state law. The reasons given for willfully disobeying the state law are varied. One district, Broken Arrow, has suggested that the voucher laws violate the state’s constitution because funds would go to religious schools.
Besides the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court and several states have ruled that these vouchers would not pose this type of constitutional threat, apparently public school district officials in Oklahoma think they know better. And they’ve discovered some new constitutional process by which school officials interpret the constitution rather than the courts.
Actually, it’s not really a new method of deciding who should interpret the constitution, since it was a method well-established by segregationist school officials and governors who believed that they had the power to block black students from exercising their civil rights no matter what the law or courts said. Now it is disabled students who are being blocked at the schoolhouse door.
The willingness of public school officials to publicly flaunt their disobedience of the law is not even very unique in current times. Just two years ago school officials in Georgia decided to disobey the state’s duly enacted social promotion policy simply because they disagreed with the policy. Some of the Oklahoma public school officials similarly believe that they have standing as educators to decide what is best for kids and formulate the policy regardless of what the law and the people who pay them say.
Public school officials get away with this kind of willful violation of the law far too easily. No one will go to jail. No one will lose their job. No one will be sanctioned in any way. And they wonder why having a law to ensure appropriate services for disabled students isn’t sufficient. Maybe it’s because public school officials apparently don’t have to follow the law.