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Legitimacy questions surround vote for nation's first publicly funded religious school in Oklahoma

 April 2023 meeting of the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
April 2023 meeting of the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board

The nation’s eyes were on Oklahoma last week when the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted to accept the application of what would be the country’s first publicly funded, religious private school. But due to a technicality, the vote might not count.

In an eleventh-hour move, board member Barry Beauchamp was replaced with Brian Bobek, a former State Board of Education member who received the appointment from House Speaker Charles McCall. But Beauchamp hadn’t actually resigned — though his term had expired, he had agreed to keep serving on the board.

Just before the meeting, Deputy Attorney General Niki Batt — who serves as the board’s legal counsel — emailed board leaders to outline her concern that the law may not technically allow Bobek to take over the seat until November.

Without Bobek’s vote, the application from St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual Charter School wouldn’t have been approved. But the members didn’t see the email, and the vote went through 3-2.

At the meeting, Board Chairman Robert Franklin implored Bobek to abstain from the vote to alleviate the appearance of political manipulation. But ultimately, Bobek voted anyway.

“In an effort to maintain the transparency of today’s weighty board vote, in an effort to avoid the perception and appearance of political manipulation related specifically to this vote, I respectfully ask that Friday’s newly appointed board member, Mr. Bobek, abstain from today’s vote,” Franklin said at the meeting. “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.”

All of this is made even more complicated by a bill recently signed into law that will do away with the virtual charter school board on July 1, 2024, and create one overall charter school board — the Statewide Charter School Board. That board would be the sponsoring authority for St. Isidore.

The new board’s membership must be appointed by Oct. 31 and will be made up of three governor appointees, two Senate Pro Tem appointees, two Speaker of the House appointees, the state superintendent and the state auditor or their designee.

Outside the legitimacy of the vote itself, legal questions surrounding the constitutionality of sending public dollars to a religious school are also expected to spur lawsuits against the board.

"State-Sponsored Religion"

In an op-ed forThe Oklahoman, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond writes the vote to approve St. Isidore, “drove a stake in the heart of religious liberty.” He also warns state and individual board members may be on the hook for costly rounds of litigation.

Drummond goes on to posit a slippery slope that could lead to citizens paying for religious teachings of any kind to be taught to children. For instance, Hindu and Satanic Temple leaders have already expressed interest in submitting their own applications.

He says the move to sponsor St. Isidore is ultimately a violation of religious freedom because it forces Oklahomans to fund religious teachings with their tax dollars.

“The framers of the U.S. Constitution and those who drafted Oklahoma’s constitution clearly understood how best to protect religious freedom: by preventing the state from sponsoring any religion at all. (...) The law simply does not allow for a religious school to be funded with public dollars,” Drummond wrote.

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Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
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