In The Know: Judge rules Oklahoma school voucher law unconstitutional

In The KnowIn The Know is a daily synopsis of Oklahoma policy-related news and blogs. Inclusion of a story does not necessarily mean endorsement by the Oklahoma Policy Institute. E-mail your suggestions for In The Know items to gperry@okpolicy.org. You can sign up here to receive In The Know by e-mail.

Today you should know that a Tulsa County judge ruled that state-funded vouchers for children with disabilities to attend private schools is unconstitutional. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution named 200 school districts nationwide, including 13 in Oklahoma, with irregularities similar to those that exposed a cheating scandal in Atlanta. The state Department of Education is preparing to take operational control of as many as 10 of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

The OK Policy Blog explains what’s in the current criminal justice reform bill and what obstacles stand in the way of real change. Urban Tulsa Weekly examines how drug courts are providing a cheaper, more effective path to rehabilitation of Oklahoma addicts. The first draft of the improvement plan for Oklahoma’s child-welfare system will call for overhauling the staff structure, increasing the number of and support for foster homes, and lowering workers’ caseloads.

More than half of Oklahoma’s non-profits say they do not think they can meet rising demand due to a still weak economy and state and federal budget cuts that are creating new gaps in services. OU engineering professor Karl Bergey writes in the Norman Transcript about the fallacy of tax cuts stimulating growth. The OKC Council voted unanimously to commit $9 million of the $80 million needed to finish the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum.

Legislation that would grant “personhood” status to human embryos was approved by an Oklahoma House panel, despite concerns that it would prohibit in vitro fertilization and popular forms of contraception. The Oklahoma Public Employees Association is suing the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, claiming it missed a deadline to open bids for administration of the Medicare Advantage Waiver Program so that workers can prepare competitive bids to keep their jobs.

The Number of the Day is Oklahoma’s rank nationally in the percentage of at-risk adults (aged 50 and over with a chronic disease) who have visited a doctor for a checkup in the past two years. In today’s Policy Note, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains how the individual health insurance mandate will benefit everyone but directly affect only a few.

In The News

Judge rules Oklahoma school voucher law unconstitutional

A 2010 Oklahoma law that authorizes state-funded scholarships for children with certain disabilities to attend private schools is unconstitutional, a Tulsa County judge ruled Tuesday. District Judge Rebecca Nightingale delivered her ruling from the bench after oral arguments in the case in which public schools in Jenks and Tulsa countersued the parents of children who sought the scholarship vouchers. Nightingale agreed with the school districts that the law violates a constitutional prohibition of public money being used — directly or indirectly — for any sectarian institution. Eric Baxter, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who represented the parents, said it was not immediately clear based on the judge’s decision what would happen to 149 special-needs students who currently are taking advantage of the scholarship but said he anticipates filing a motion to keep the law in place pending an appeal.

Read more from The Associated Press.

Test scores in 13 Oklahoma districts suspected of irregularities

State and local leaders are reacting to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s analysis of 69,000 U.S. schools’ standardized test results, which named the Tulsa, Owasso, and Choctaw-Nicoma Park districts among 200 with the “most suspect” irregularities. The report named 10 other Oklahoma school districts – Bartlesville, Broken Arrow, Edmond, Oklahoma City, Muskogee, Mustang, Norman, Sand Springs, Western Heights, Yukon – as having fluctuations in test scores deserving of further examination. The Georgia newspaper delved into the issue of standardized test integrity nationwide after a criminal investigation by state officials determined last year that cheating had occurred in more than half of Atlanta Public Schools’ elementary and middle schools in 2009. This week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution released its examination of test results for 69,000 schools in 49 states and found high concentrations of test-score shifts outside statistical norms in 200 school districts. The paper’s researchers acknowledged that their analysis didn’t prove cheating, but said the “troubling patterns” they found in hundreds of cities “resemble early indicators in Atlanta” that ultimately led to the scandal.

Read more from The Tulsa World.

Oklahoma education department preparing to take control of up to 10 low-performing schools

The state is preparing to take operational control of as many as 10 of the state’s lowest-performing schools, a top education official told lawmakers Tuesday. Comments by Department of Education Chief of Staff Joel Robison to the House Common Education Committee made it clear that Tulsa and Oklahoma City schools are among those on the cusp of intervention – described as a “takeover” by some and a “partnership” by Robison. The Education Department will release its list of designated schools on Thursday, Robison said. He described the preliminary work with school districts – including “the two largest school districts in the state” – as cooperative. “At no point in time has anybody told us we’re going to draw the line in the sand; we’re not going to partner with you; if you’re going to come, you’re going to have to take it away from us,” Robison said.

Read more from The Tulsa World.

Reforming criminal justice: What the latest bill does and what stands in the way

A criminal justice reform bill, HB 3052, has been making its way through the legislature to great fanfare. More recently rebranded as a “public safety bill,” it is the result of Oklahoma’s participation in the Justice Reinvestment initiative, which seeks data-driven ways to reduce crime and recidivism and ease the burden on overcrowded prisons. Reforms are direly needed. The state’s incarceration rates are among the highest in the nation. An overcrowded, understaffed prison system is putting both inmates and correctional officers in danger. And all that imprisonment is not paying off in public safety, with Oklahoma’s violent crime rate remaining above the national average. So are these latest reforms the answer?

Read more from the OK Policy Blog.

Oklahoma’s drug courts are a better path to rehabilitation

She was able to overcome her drug addiction without going through jail time or rehab, but has worried about her husband’s similar struggles. Right now, Clay Sumpter is in Oklahoma City Community Correctional Center, serving for nonviolent offenses. This center is a little different than typical jail. The OCCC opened in October 1970 to offer offenders an opportunity to achieve a successful “re-entry” into the world. The center offers supervision as offenders take on treatment and employment through public works program and work-release job opportunities. Catherine Sumpter is glad to see her husband get help. “The reality is he’s a drug addict and treatment for that is what’s really needed,” she said. Sumpter watched helplessly as her husband endured the struggles of jail — the weight loss, alleged blackmail — only to come home and battle the same substance abuse demons year after year. She’s glad the cycle may finally end. Of the inmates in DOC custody, 33 percent were imprisoned for drug and alcohol offenses, and at least half were incarcerated for a crime related to substance abuse. The majority of Oklahoma’s incarcerated are serving time for nonviolent crimes.

Read more from Urban Tulsa Weekly.

DHS drafts plan for child welfare system overhaul

The first draft of the improvement plan for Oklahoma’s child-welfare system will call for overhauling the staff structure, increasing the number of and support for foster homes, and lowering workers’ caseloads. The plan must be submitted to a three-person independent monitoring panel on Friday. Deborah Smith, director of the Department of Human Services Children and Family Services Division, previewed the plan for the agency’s oversight commission meeting Tuesday. She said the monitors, as well as lawmakers and children’s advocates, have had input. The staff named the reform document the Pinnacle Plan to reflect reaching the highest possible standards. The plan has seven key points that will be tied to the settlement agreement in a lawsuit brought against DHS by a national children’s rights group. The agreement mandates improvements in 15 areas of child welfare. Details of the improvement plan, including the number of foster families to recruit, how much caseloads will be decreased, and method of implementation and costs of each point, will be released Friday.

Read more from The Tulsa World.

Nonprofits struggle to meet growing demand

While businesses are beginning to recover, the clouds have not yet parted for many nonprofits. Instead, nonprofits are being hit from two sides with increased demand. Individuals affected by the economic downturn are not yet back on their feet and still require assistance. State and federal cuts mean governments are looking to nonprofits to fill in the gaps where they formerly provided services. Those cuts mean the state is currently serving fewer Oklahomans through the affected agencies. This leads individuals to the doors of nonprofit organizations, who once again courageously tackle the job of filling the gap. In a 2011 State of the Sector Survey by the Nonprofit Finance Fund, 77 percent of nonprofit organizations were experiencing an increase in demand for services and 54 percent did not think they were going to be able to meet this demand.

Read more from The Tulsa World.

Fallacy of tax case for stimulating growth

When individual states attempt to attract corporations, they often join chambers of commerce in making a business case for lowering corporate and personal taxes. Oklahoma is no exception. The present governor and legislature not only subscribe to this popular belief, but are proposing to act on it by applying a machete to all possible state taxes. They justify the cuts as leading to economic growth, brought on by lower tax rates. Unfortunately, their actions are more likely to do just the opposite. The annual State Business Tax Climate Index, compiled by The Tax Foundation, is aimed at selecting the most business-friendly states. It celebrates those states that have extremely low tax rates in the three major categories: corporate taxes, individual income taxes and sales taxes. The low level of such taxes, and in some cases the absence thereof, are the dominant factors in choosing the most business-friendly states. The 10 best states, according to the 2012 Tax Climate Index, are: 1. Wyoming, 2. South Dakota, 3. Nevada, 4. Alaska, 5. Florida, 6. New Hampshire, 7. Washington, 8. Montana, 9. Texas and 10. Utah. Excepting Texas and Washington, none of the other eight are noted for either business activity or high average income.

Read more from The Norman Transcript.

Oklahoma City commits $9M to American Indian Cultural Center and Museum

The half-finished American Indian Cultural Center will get $9 million from Oklahoma City to help complete construction if the state agrees to provide $40 million for the project. The Oklahoma City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to commit $9 million of the $80 million needed to finish the $170 million museum. Construction began in 2006 but was halted last year when the Legislature didn’t approve a request for a bond issue to pay for finishing it. The city’s decision is contingent upon the state providing an additional $40 million for the museum. Tribes and private donors have pledged the rest of the money needed to finish the project, said J. Blake Wade, CEO of the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority (NACEA), the state agency building the museum. Wade and other supporters will soon put together a package detailing the commitments from the city, tribes and private donors to state officials in hopes the state will fund the remaining $40 million.

Read more from NewsOK.

House committee passes personhood bill

Legislation that would grant “personhood” status to human embryos was approved by an Oklahoma House panel Tuesday in spite of the concerns of opponents that it could have unintended consequences, including prohibiting some forms of contraception and in vitro fertilization. The Oklahoma House’s Public Health Committee voted 7-4 for the Senate-passed measure and sent it to the full House, where it is also expected to pass. Following the vote, the head of an abortion-rights group said the measure will be challenged in court if it is signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. “This is going to cost the taxpayers of Oklahoma money,” said Martha Skeeters, of Norman, president of the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice. Susan Plath Winston, of Norman, whose 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son were conceived through in vitro fertilization, became emotional following the committee hearing and said the techniques used to conceive her children would be banned under the law.

Read more from The Associated Press.

Oklahoma Public Employees Association sues over health care bid process

The state’s largest association of public workers is suing the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, claiming it missed a deadline to open bidding on health care services for the elderly and disabled provided by the Department of Human Services. The Oklahoma Public Employees Association filed a lawsuit in Oklahoma County District Court on March 23, alleging the Oklahoma Health Care Authority missed a Jan. 1 deadline to issue a request for proposals to competitively bid on administrative services for the Advantage Waiver Program. Attorneys for the association fear that time is running out for workers in the Advantage Waiver Program to prepare and submit competitive bids to keep their jobs.

Read more from NewsOK.

Quote of the Day

This case isn’t so much about freedom from government-mandated broccoli or gyms. It’s about freedom from our obligations to one another, freedom from the modern world in which we live. It’s about the freedom to ignore the injured, walk away from those in peril, to never pick up the phone or eat food that’s been inspected. It’s about the freedom to be left alone. And now we know the court is worried about freedom: the freedom to live like it’s 1804.
Dahlia Lithwick, writing in Slate Magazine about the Supreme Court hearing over health care reform

Number of the Day

50th

Oklahoma’s rank nationally in the percentage of at-risk adults (aged 50 and over with a chronic disease) who have visited a doctor for a checkup in the past two years

Source: Commonwealth Fund

See previous Numbers of the Day here.

Policy Note

Individual mandate will benefit all, but directly affect only a few

The Supreme Court examined today the requirement in the Affordable Care Act (that is, health reform) that individuals have health coverage or face a penalty. Apart from the legal questions before the Court, here’s what Americans need to know about this “individual mandate.” It won’t affect the vast majority of Americans. Most Americans already have insurance — through their jobs or through a program like Medicare, Medicaid, or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). They simply will check a box on their tax forms stating they have coverage. A new Urban Institute study found that only 7 percent of people under age 65 will have to buy health insurance or face a penalty — and many of them will get subsidies to make coverage more affordable. Most uninsured Americans want coverage. Many uninsured people don’t have a job that provides insurance and either can’t afford to buy it in the individual market or would get rejected by insurance companies because they have (or have had) serious health problems. Only 7 percent of the uninsured report that they don’t have insurance mainly because they don’t think they need it, according to the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured. The small number of uninsured people who don’t want coverage will simply pay a modest fee.

Read more from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gene Perry joined OK Policy in January 2011. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism. Gene also serves on the board of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, is a trustee of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, and has chaired the communications advisory committee for the State Priorities Partnership, a nationwide network of state fiscal policy think tanks. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Kara Joy McKee, who is a Tulsa City Councilor.

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