Sunday, April 10, 2016

Scholarships for Disabled Students

In 2013, a group of Oklahoma residents sued their state over a program they believed violated both the first amendment of the United States constitution and the Oklahoma constitution.  The law in question was the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Law.  As its name would imply, this law created a scholarship program for students with disabilities that allowed them and their parents to attend the school of their choice under the premise that many private schools will be able to better meet the needs of disabled students than their public counterparts.  Parents of special needs children widely applauded the law arguing that with an average class size of over 20 students, Oklahoma’s public schools often were not prepared to meet the needs of their children.  

The scholarship program specifies that the funding is available to parents to help defray the costs of sending their children to a private institution.  It does not specify whether or not the funds can be applied to tuition at a religious school.  In practice, roughly 80% of the schools approved to receive the funds are religious and the program costs the state of Oklahoma around $1 million each year.  Opponents of the program argue that the scholarships violate the first amendment of the constitution by supporting (i.e. establishing) religion in Oklahoma.  They also argue that the program violates the Oklahoma state constitution, specifically a passage known as the no-aid clause which prohibits the use of government funding, “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”.  Opponents argue that the practice of diverting large sums of government money to religious schools violates this clause, and is therefore unconstitutional.  They also point out that since most of the schools approved are not specifically geared towards special needs children, the law is not serving its secular purpose.   
Proponents of the law, including many parents of special needs children argue that the law is constitution and that they should be able to access generally available state aid in the same way as the rest of the state.  They contend that, as the public schools in Oklahoma are not providing  children with the best possible learning environment, they should be able to try to find a school that better suits the unique needs of disabled children.  

I agree with proponents of the law in this case and I think that the law holds up when subjected to the Lemon Test.  The scholarship program has the secular purpose of aiding in the education of special needs children who may need more help and attention than their public school can offer.  As the program is equally available to all eligible students and families regardless of their religious beliefs and they are allowed to apply the funding to the school tuition of their choice, once again regardless of the religious affiliation of the school, this law neither furthers nor inhibits religion.  Finally, as the funding is given directly to students and their families, I do not see this an excessive entanglement issue.  

The Oklahoma Supreme Court agreed with me and ruled that the program was constitutional in early February.  Opponents of the law plan to appeal the decision and try to move the case to federal court, so it can eventually make its way to the US Supreme Court.  In its decision the court cited a similar case from Ohio, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), where a scholarship fund that distributed aid based on financial need and allowed it to be applied to any religious or non-religious school was upheld.  This ruling is also supported by the opinion we read in class in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, as well as Mueller v. Allen, and Mitchell v. Helms.  

What do you think? Does providing education to special needs children outweigh a potential aid to religion?

Fun Fact: Broken Arrow, the town we read about last week with the giant church water tower, is one of the major opponents of the law. 


Rebecca J said...

I agree with Maddie that this scholarship program should be upheld. I think the key factor is that where the child chooses to go to school is a result of the private decisions of the parents and therefore, the scholarship money is only directly to a private religious institution as a result of a series of private decisions. This is similar to a blog post I wrote a few months ago about a scholarship program intended to promote school choice. These programs are not created with the intention of aiding religion but rather are meant to help provide a better education for students who have disabilities or whose options are limited because of their economic circumstances. Education is clearly a valued asset in our society and programs that function to promote the secular purpose of education should be encouraged. These programs are facially natural and only indirectly benefit religion if the student's and families choose a religious school, so the government itself is not unfairly aiding religion. Therefore, these scholarship programs do not pose a significant threat the the establishment clause of the first amendment and should be upheld.

Sarah A said...

This case is very similar to one assigned for Wednesday, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. In this case, the court decided that the secular purpose of providing tuition vouchers to low income families trumped the very indirect aid it provided to religion. As Becca points out, the aid is only making it to religious schools after a series of choices from individuals, and therefore does not qualify as Government aid. I think the same applies here: there is secular purpose to provide disabled children with education, which trumps the indirect aid to religion for me.

Hannah L. said...

When a child receives scholarship money, it is based on the needs of the family and the disability of that child. That scholarship money is therefore the property of the family, and where that family chooses to send the child is a private decision that is not endorsed by the government. Any child with disabilities is capable of receiving these benefits, and these should not be taken away simply because the family chooses a religious private school over a public one. The reasons for choosing the religious school should not entirely matter because it is a private decision, but in many situations the families have said the private schools provide better learning environments for their children with disabilities and this is a secular reason for choosing these religious schools. I do not believe this scholarship program violates any part of the Establishment Clause.

Sedona Boyatzis said...

I agree with all of the previous sentiments. I do not believe that this law in any way violates the establishment clause or causes excessive entanglement between the government and religion. This law is meant to provide disabled children with more opportunity to obtain an education that children with no disabilities are able to obtain. It is not unconstitutional for private religious schools to be granted this funding as the school of choice is in fact the choice of the parents of the disabled child.

Caroline Vauzelle said...

I think it was really smart of you to put the program to the Lemon test, and I agree with you that it passes all three steps. According to me, this program is indeed constitutional, and furthermore presents an undeniable global benefit to society. We talked about the fact that religious citizens are citizens like any others, they pay taxes, and thus in certain cases special exemptions should be made about religious schools so that their children can enjoy the same services as the other children. For me, this is a consideration that totally works with this case. The parents of disabled children are citizens just like any others, they pay taxes, and it could be seen as an unfair burden for them to have to pay much more than the others so that their children benefit of - at least in theory - similar services. Education is a right.

Samantha Woolford said...

I agree with the people in the comments above. There is nothing wrong with the law. Everyone who is qualified can receive this help, regardless of any religious affiliation. It is not government endorsement of religion if a family decides to have their child attend a religious school. Children have the right to a good education. Obviously in Oklahoma, the special needs programs in the public schools are not well-equipped to be helping these children. Special needs children have just as much of a right to a good education. I do not see anything wrong with this law.