School choice policies that transformed my son’s life

More than 100,000 students in Oklahoma, roughly one in seven, qualify for special education services. My son, who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age three, is one of them.

Jett is a smart, wonderful, beautiful child with a bright future ahead of him. However, like many other children who learn differently, he needs extra attention, smaller class sizes, and a teacher who understands how to work with autistic students.

For some students and parents with special needs, their local public school is a suitable option. For many, including my son, that is not the case. In fact, our local middle school is struggling to provide a safe and constructive environment for its students; the idea that they can offer a quality education to students with autism is unrealistic, despite the best intentions of their faculty.

As a parent, the discovery that a local public school is a poor fit is not just an inconvenience or a disappointment; it is a scary revelation that leaves you feeling powerless and frustrated. Unfortunately, our education bureaucracy only reinforces that feeling. When I explained my circumstances to the Oklahoma City School Board, I was told to “consider private school.” Of course, for someone of moderate means, private school tuition isn’t always a realistic option. What they essentially were telling me is, “we can’t help.” I was increasingly worried that I could not help either, and that Jett would be forced to attend a school where he could not learn and where he might not even be safe.

It was at that time that I discovered two programs – a voucher and a tax credit – that changed my son’s life.

The Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarship program allows the parents of special needs children to redirect a portion of the tax dollars assigned to their child’s education to a private school of their choice. Likewise, the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Scholarship program uses private dollars – supported by a state-funded tax credit—to cover private school tuition costs for families with modest incomes.

The combination of these two programs has enabled me to send my son to Trinity School, a private school that specializes in teaching students who learn differently. It is a loving and nurturing environment that is perfect for my son, who benefits from the smaller class sizes and teachers who are certified to work with children with learning differences.

I am sharing Jett’s story for two reasons. First, I want parents like me to understand they have options. If your local public school cannot provide the kind of education your child needs, these policies are here to help.

Second, I understand that our lawmakers are constantly weighing the benefits of every dollar of state money spent. The Henry Scholarships and Opportunity Scholarship Fund are literally changing the lives of thousands of Oklahomans and parents and, in many cases, elevating them from desperate circumstances.

If ever there was an investment worthy of our support, it is these two life-changing and empowering programs.