In part because Oklahoma lawmakers have not raised the cap on Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship program, this year a child survivor of trauma, who also has autism, lacked funding to attend a private school that had been serving his needs for years. This occurred even as the boy’s local public school refused to provide him with services, despite documented need, saying the youth should be placed in a regular 10th-grade classroom even though he functions at a fourth-grade level.
That case was one of many reasons parents and caretakers urged lawmakers to expand Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship program during a recent forum held by the American Federation for Children in Oklahoma City.
“I was a former public school teacher,” said Rhonda Stabler, who has spent the last 14 years raising a boy who was severely maltreated as an infant. “I was raised by parents who were both educators and both retired from Oklahoma public school system. I have kids who graduated from public school, one of whom was a National Merit Scholar. But we need to raise the cap for my son and kids like him who don’t fit. There are other options available for special-needs kids and emotionally scarred kids in foster care and decent homes, like mine, who are wards of the court but lucky enough to have one person step up and take care of them.”
Rachel Gray-Davis, who adopted five boys, told officials Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship program benefits adoptive children in ways comparable to the act of adoption itself.
“Without people coming up with funds and tax credits, I have no idea where me or my children would be today,” Gray-Davis said. “In a circle of events, this is impacting my children just like I have by adopting them from foster care.”
Under Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship law, those who donate to scholarship-granting organizations receive a credit that reduces their tax liability. After accounting for all local, state and federal dollars expended on public schools, independent research has found the tax-credit scholarship program saves $2.91 in government school spending for every dollar issued in tax credits.
However, the amount of tax credits is capped, which limits the program’s impact and results in many needy children going without the financial aid they need to attend schools tailored for them, while other children can see their aid reduced. Legislation, which advanced in 2019 and now awaits final approval in the 2020 legislative session, would raise the amount of tax credits that can be issued.
Gray-Davis and Stabler’s families are typical of those who’ve benefited from Oklahoma’s school-choice laws.
Although Gray-Davis already had two biological daughters, seven years ago she became a foster parent and was asked to take in two different sets of siblings—a set of three brothers, and a separate pair of brothers. She received all five boys over the course of one weekend. Eventually, Gray-Davis adopted the boys.
“Since some of them had been in over 16 homes, I couldn’t be the one to send them somewhere else,” Gray-Davis said. “So that became our forever family. So I have seven children: one nine-year old, two 10-year olds, one 12-year old, two 13-year olds, and a 14-year old.”
Initially, the children attended the local public school. But it became clear that the traditional system was not working for the children. While her children were acclimating at home, Gray-Davis said when they went to school they were “almost reverting to this prior lifestyle that they had.”
“They were having serious behavior issues and struggling academically,” Gray-Davis said.
Gray-Davis tried to home school the children and then explored the feasibility of private school, when she was informed scholarships were available thanks to Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship program. Those scholarships have allowed her children to attend Oklahoma Christian School in Edmond, something she said would not have been financially feasible otherwise. The children have now begun their fourth year there.
“I had no idea that that was out there,” Gray-Davis said. “I’d never heard of it. And just with the amount of children, we got really blessed through that program.”
The difference in school settings had a dramatic impact. Gray-Davis said she “saw immediate results, a change in their personality, a change in their demeanor. They were relaxed. You could tell that they felt well-cared for when they were picked up at the end of the day. Grades started changing.”
Teachers at the children’s new school were proactive and reached out to the family to learn how to best teach the children, where most teacher calls from their prior traditional school were only to report misbehavior.
“They started seeing themselves differently,” Gray-Davis said. “They had a little hope. They thought, ‘I can do things that I didn’t know I was capable of doing. I can get As and Bs on a test, and I can make friends.’”
Like Gray-Davis, Stabler’s family story involved rapid and dramatic change when she encountered a child in distress. Stabler was mother to three biological children and thought she was “done.” But in 2005, she encountered a needy two-year old boy through a family friend. Stabler recalls seeing the boy, “visibly undernourished,” lacking any vocabulary at a time when most children have mastered 20 words, and “his eyes were hollow.”
“I recall him reaching his hand into a bag of dog food,” Stabler said, “and he was eating it.”
Stabler let it be known she would care for the boy if the biological mother gave up custody. Roughly five months later, Stabler was contacted because child-protective service officials were prepared to remove the boy from his home. However, the biological mother had agreed to sign over custody to Stabler.
While Stabler was made legal guardian of the boy, he technically remained a ward of the court and he never entered the foster-care system, a fact that would ironically harm his education prospects years later.
“I prevented him from going into foster care by stepping up,” Stabler said. “That was almost 14 years ago.”
Since then, her son has required years of speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral therapy, and still has “ongoing educational and behavioral challenges that we face.”
When Stabler placed her son in a public school pre-K program, the school could not serve him because his behavior was “so disruptive” and he “couldn’t communicate.”
Eventually, a team of specialists reviewed her son’s case and concluded that he was on the autism spectrum in addition to dealing with the effects of childhood trauma and neglect. The specialists recommended that the boy be placed in the Town and Country School in Tulsa, which serves children with special needs.
“Much to my shock,” Stabler said, “it worked.”
Stabler’s son attended Town and Country from second to ninth grades. Stabler said the school’s impact was “phenomenal.”
“Emotionally, educationally, socially, behaviorally, it was a steady every-year improvement,” Stabler said.
Tuition at Town and Country was $11,500 per year when her son first attended, and it was only thanks to a benefactor who paid the boy’s tuition that he was able to attend. That support ended when the youth reached ninth grade, but he was able to obtain a $10,000 scholarship.
However, this year that scholarship fell to $5,000. Had the cap on Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship program been raised this year, Stabler noted it is likely additional funds would have been available to help her family.
Despite her income as a speech pathologist, Stabler lacked the personal finances to pay the tuition that would still be owed after the $5,000 scholarship and she had to withdraw her son from Town and Country.
She contacted the local public school, where Stabler had been employed as a speech therapist just two years prior, and took her son’s three-inch file to the special-education director’s office.
“She wasn’t there when I got there. I left the file in her office,” Stabler said. “Fifteen minutes later I got a phone call that said, ‘I looked through the file. Looks like his IQ is normal, but he has a discrepancy in English, so he can come to school here and he’ll be in regular 10th-grade classes with regular students and he’ll get help in English.’”
The school’s refusal to provide services to Stabler’s son came despite the fact that his file included a letter from a psychiatrist saying the boy could be a danger to himself and others and needed to be in a self-contained classroom.
Stabler was forced to enroll her son in a virtual school, a situation she said is not ideal for many reasons.
While children with special needs, foster-care youth, and adoptive children all qualify for state-funded private-school scholarships through the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program, Stabler’s willingness to step up and care for her son, which kept him from going into foster care, means he does not qualify for the LNH program as a foster child. Because Stabler’s son has never been in public school, he does not qualify for the program as a special-needs student, either.
“I felt like he’s being penalized because I didn’t let child-protective services walk in,” Stabler said.
In addition, because her son was never in the foster-care system, Stabler does not receive any state stipend or other form of taxpayer aid for his care.
In her work as a speech therapist, Stabler said she advocates for the needs of her patients to preserve their quality of life.
“I advocate for them every single day,” Stabler said, “and I’m asking you to do the same thing for my child. Raise the cap and change Lindsey Nicole Henry to include wards of the court.”