Oklahoma legislature considers multiple bills to expanding school choice, including one for homeless students

Oklahoma is considering an update to its school choice voucher program that would include homeless children.

SB 358, introduced by Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, revises standards to the state’s Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities (LNH) program.

LNH, which launched in 2010, currently serves over 1,000 students who either have special learning needs or are part of the foster or adoption system. It provides vouchers with an average value of $7,300 – 75% of the state’s public per-pupil funding.

The proposed bill would update program eligibility to include Oklahoma’s homeless children – a group estimated last year to include nearly 70,000 kids, or roughly 7% of the state’s total child population.

The bill would also eliminate the current requirement for voucher applicants to have attended a public school for at least one year prior, which Daniels believes is a hindrance for students.  

“We have students who go to public school. It doesn’t work for them. Parents find the services they need in another school setting, but they cannot access this scholarship without going back and attending that public school again,” she said, according to the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA). “If you have a special-needs child, losing even one year of education is bad.”  

Some Democratic senators raised questions about accountability and whether vouchers would really help students. 

“Obviously, you’re not going to use the scholarship and go access services that don’t actually suit your child’s needs,” Daniels responded. “The parents that access the program and continue to keep their children in these institutions where they believe their child’s special needs are being met – that, to me, is the sign of success.” 

In the 2021-2022 school year, many of nearly 1,000 students in the program were diagnosed with autism, health impairments, learning disabilities, or speech and language impairments.   

The stories from parents whose children’s lives were changed by the school choice scholarship are compelling to supporters.  

“When she started (private school), she couldn’t even say, ‘Daddy,’” recalled Candace Cronin, mother of a six-year-old girl with sensorineural hearing loss.  

But attending a private school changed everything. 

“She can communicate. She understands. She is awesome at reading. I mean, she is like one of the top five in her class in reading. And just two years ago, the girl couldn’t even talk,” Cronin said.  

The Senate is also considering a bill passed last week by the House (HB 1935) which would establish a tax-credit scholarship program. 

“I view this as an investment in kids, and we’re trying to invest in all kids,” said Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon of the bill. “Parents have made it very clear to us that they’ve got to have choices about what’s best for their children.”