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Oklahoma Charter School Board approves nation's first publicly-funded religious school

Board Chairman Robert Franklin speaks to the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board at its April 11 meeting.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Board Chairman Robert Franklin speaks to the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board at its April 11 meeting.

In a split decision, Oklahoma City’s Catholic Archdiocese overcame a major hurdle Monday in its effort to create the nation’s first publicly funded, religious charter school. But critics say the move is unconstitutional and likely to face legal challenges.

The application from the St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic Charter School to Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board has been sitting on the table since early April.

At its April meeting, the board voted unanimously to disapprove the application. It cited eight concerns the school had to address before the board would reconsider its vote: appropriate accommodations for special education, the school’s pedagogical approach, its governance and management, connectivity and technology for virtual learning, its funding structure, measuring school and student outcomes, likely lawsuits that would arise and issues with its application’s consistency.

St. Isidore would be free for students in kindergarten-12th grade and funded like any other public charter school in Oklahoma. It aims to open for the 2024-2025 school year and serve around 400–500 students. Proponents say it would give rural Catholic families who live far from brick-and-mortar schools the ability to access Catholic education.

But critics point to the potential for discriminatory policies as public school admission expectations collide with religious doctrine. While the school says it wouldn’t require students to be Catholic, it acknowledges that students will be immersed in Catholic religious tenets. Concerns also surround possible disciplinary treatment of LGBTQ+ students and unmarried pregnant students, as well as potentially discriminatory employment practices for staff.

Erika Wright is the founder of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition and spoke during the public comment period at the meeting. She says her organization has grown by nearly 2,000 in response to the St. Isidore issue, bumping up the group to nearly 12,000 members.

“The implications of today’s decision are quite serious, particularly for our rural schools and communities. As rural Oklahomans, we want more support for our existing public schools,” Wright said. “Oklahomans are not clamoring for this. This is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. And everyone in this room knows full well that this will not stop with a virtual charter school.”

Children with disabilities may also face potential problems, say critics. While St. Isidore’s application assures it will comply with state and federal laws related to educating students with disabilities, it would only be to the extent it “does not compromise the religious tenets of the school and the instructional model of the school.”

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Recent board shake-up

The board has also experienced a recent shake-up. Member Barry Beauchamp, who was allowed to continue serving on the board after his term expired, was replaced with Brian Bobek, who was appointed by Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall.

Bobek is based in Oklahoma City and has previously served on the State Board of Education and the State Board of Career and Technology Education, by appointments from Gov. Kevin Stitt. The chairman of the Statewide Virtual Charter School board told the Tulsa World the board was notified Friday of the change.

At the meeting, Franklin called for Bobek to abstain from the vote “in an effort to maintain the transparency of today’s weighty board vote, and in an effort to avoid the perception and appearance of political manipulation related specifically to this vote.”

“I realize this is a bold request, Brian. Yet there is so much work ahead of this board in the coming months whereby Mr. Bobek’s voice and seasoned insight will be a tremendous asset,” Franklin said. “Conversely, the credibility and the court-tested validity of today’s vote is not worth the risk of a technicality or a misinformed perception of all these interested stakeholders.”

Regardless, Bobek ultimately decided to vote in favor of the application.

Legal argument against the proposal

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond has come out against the proposal, withdrawing a previous opinion from his predecessor, John O’Connor, that was written in support of the move. O’Connor opined that recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings allow the state to go forward with sponsorship.

“[O’Connor’s previous opinion] misuses the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion,” Drummond’s decision reads. “If allowed to remain in force, I fear the opinion will be used as a basis for taxpayer-funded religious schools, which is precisely what [St. Isidore] seeks to become.”

Drummond issued a press release after the decision, saying the vote violates state law.

“It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars,” Drummond wrote. “In doing so, these members have exposed themselves and the State to potential legal action that could be costly.”

Oklahoma law forbids the teaching of sectarian or religious doctrine at public charter schools: “A charter school shall be nonsectarian in its programs, admission policies, employment practices, and all other operations. A sponsor may not authorize a charter school or program that is affiliated with a nonpublic sectarian school or religious institution.”

Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
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