For more than a decade now, the state’s Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities (LNH) program has been helping children with special needs thrive by paying for them to attend private schools that better serve them.
For many children and families, the program has been life-changing.
Candace Cronin’s six-year-old daughter is among them.
“She can communicate,” Candace Cronin said. “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.”
The Cronins’ daughter was diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss and enlarged vestibular aqueducts (EVA). She was also born with torticollis, a condition affecting the neck that also affects hearing. Because her hearing is so compromised, the child struggled to learn to speak.
Throughout much of her young life, the Cronins’ daughter has been involved in occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy. And while she has made dramatic strides, most of her progress occurred after becoming an LNH scholarship recipient and attending a private school where she received much more personal attention.
“When she started (private school), she couldn’t even say, ‘Daddy,’” Candace Cronin recalled. “That didn’t come until later.”
The Cronins’ experience is typical of many LNH families. But the LNH program, and efforts to create similar school-choice opportunities for other children across Oklahoma, continue to face strong resistance.
Among the opponents is the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA), an organization whose national affiliate famously urged the Biden administration to prosecute parents under anti-terrorism laws when families began speaking out about their education concerns at school board meetings.
On its website, the OSSBA claims that programs like LNH “erode public school funding and harms the 700,000 students who attend public schools”—even though the state actually spends less money per student on LNH recipients than what would be spent on those same students in the public school system.
The OSSBA also states that the LNH program “has shifted more than $38 million away from public schools to private schools over the last decade.”
However, state financial records show that figure represents a tiny fraction of total school spending during that time.
From 2012 to 2021, Oklahoma public schools received $63.7 billion in combined funding. The LNH program received 0.06 percent of that total, based on the OSSBA figure.
Put another way, for every $100 spent on public schools during that decade, only 6 cents went to LNH students.
The OSSBA and other critics of school-choice programs also complain that private schools have no “requirement to accept all students.”
But families across Oklahoma have found that the “public schools serve all students” mantra is often more urban legend than reality.
“That’s not true,” said Renate Eytcheson. “They don’t. Because my grandson’s a perfect example of that.”
Eytcheson’s grandson has autism and the Cordell school district served him well—until it didn’t. That’s because when the boy first began school, Eytcheson said he had “a great teacher.” But that teacher was certified to work with him only through a certain age. Once he advanced past that age and onto other instructors—the child is now 12—she said the youth’s education took a nosedive.
Eytcheson said school officials began claiming the boy was too disruptive and refused to serve him.
“They called my daughter every day to come and pick him up, like halfway through the day,” Eytcheson said.
Even though she said her grandson could potentially be disruptive due to his special needs, Eytcheson noted, “Still, he’s entitled to be taught. He needs to be educated.”
Eventually, the family had to shift the boy to an online charter school, even though that created logistical challenges. Eytcheson’s daughter has a full-time job, so the grandmother watches her grandson during the day while he does online school.
Opponents of school-choice programs that allow money to follow a student to any school, including private schools, argue that open transfer between public-school districts is sufficient to address the needs of children who are not well-served in a geographically assigned district.
But public schools are allowed to restrict access to those transfers, and publicly released data shows relatively few students benefit from the open-transfer law. Even schools with declining enrollment have claimed they lack space for transfer students.
Eytcheson said she and her daughter are among those who unsuccessfully sought a transfer to another district.
“We did, a couple of years ago, try to get him into a school in Elk City, because we heard that they have a good teacher for special needs,” Eytcheson said. “We went over there, my daughter and I, and talked to the superintendent. And he just flat-out turned us down. He was not interested at all.”
Despite Success, Some Lawmakers Oppose Program Improvements
Even though many public schools struggle or fail to serve students who qualify for Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarships, and private schools have proven a successful alternative for those families, some lawmakers continue to resist the program and any expansion of school-choice opportunities.
Currently, students must first attend a public school for a year before they are eligible for an LNH scholarship. That can force parents to stand by as a child falls further behind.
The Cronins’ daughter attended the Broken Arrow district for a year. Candace Cronin recalled that the Broken Arrow official charged with oversight of her daughter’s education told the family a school official would track the girl’s progress with speech development—once a month.
Because the Cronins’ daughter received an individualized education plan (IEP), she was then qualified for the LNH scholarship program for the following year.
“We filled out the paperwork, and then we waited and waited and waited,” Candace Cronin said. “That was the longest wait ever.”
During her year at Broken Arrow, the Cronins saw little progress with their daughter’s speech development and learning, they said.
In 2021, the Oklahoma Senate passed Senate Bill 126, which would have eliminated the one-year wait for LNH recipients and also ensured that state regulators could not prevent private religious schools from serving LNH students.
But when the bill was heard in the House Common Education Committee, chaired by state Rep. Rhonda Baker (R-Yukon), the bill was stripped of the language eliminating the one-year wait. Then the entire bill was eventually killed in conference committee.
School-choice opponents often argue parents don’t need alternatives because traditional public schools can serve all students well. But many parents have found that isn’t the case.
“If you fit into their little box, sure, they do,” Eytcheson said. “But if you’re different and you have needs other than just the norm, then absolutely not.”
Supporters of the LNH program and similar school-choice efforts say state policymakers should focus, first and foremost, on whether children are well served.
Having seen his daughter make huge gains thanks to the LNH program—she has gone from being almost nonverbal to verbal, from being a non-reader to a reader, and is now even learning Spanish—leaves Tim Cronin baffled by the program’s opponents.
“I don’t understand how they can be so critical,” he said. “It’s beneficial for the children involved. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to better a child’s life.”