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Oklahoma Catholics press forward in bid for nation’s first religious charter school

After an application to open the nation’s first religious charter school was met with an initial rejection this week, the head of the Oklahoma Catholic Conference said supporters of the virtual Catholic school are not discouraged.

Oklahoma capitol. Credit: W. Scott McGill / Shutterstock.

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On Tuesday, Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board unanimously rejected a bid from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa to open a virtual charter school in the state.

The five-member board asked for clarification on several questions, and said the application could be revised and resubmitted within 30 days.

Brett Farley, executive director of the Oklahoma Catholic Conference, emphasized that the board’s decision is not a final rejection, but a common procedural step in order to request more information.

“This is actually the more normal course for applications to the board. In fact, I think the majority of those that they ultimately approve are initially denied pending revisions. So ours is following the same course,” he told The Pillar.

The requested clarifications include specifications on the technology budget and details about the special education curriculum, as well as questions about the proposal’s legal premise - that an explicitly religious charter school is constitutional. 

Farley said he is optimistic that the school’s proponents will be able to submit the revisions to the board and ultimately get approval in the next month or so.

The proposed school – St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School – would offer tuition-free online education throughout the state of Oklahoma.

Lara Schuler, director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, told The Pillar earlier this year that the school would particularly serve Catholics living in rural areas of the state, where there are no brick-and-mortar Catholic schools nearby.

In Oklahoma, virtual schools are required to be charter schools, she added.

The proposal to open St. Isidore is clear about the school’s Catholic identity. While the K-12 school would serve students of any or no faith background, it would offer religious instruction and would operate “as a genuine instrument of the Church,” the application states.

If approved, St. Isidore would be the first explicitly religious charter school in the United States. Charter schools are taxpayer funded, but they are run independently and are not tied to a specific neighborhood. 

School choice initiatives – including vouchers, charter schools, and private school scholarships – have grown in prominence with the decline in public school enrollment in recent years. The federal government projects that public schools will lose another 2 million students by 2030.

Still, an explicitly religious charter school is far from universally supported, even within the conservative state of Oklahoma.

The state’s former attorney general supported the idea of publicly funding religious charter schools, but the current attorney general opposes it.

The proposal has won the support of Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, who argued in a letter this February that religious liberty “precludes the government from singling out believers for disfavor or preventing them from fully participating in public life, including in public-benefits programs.”

“[T]he provisions of Oklahoma law prohibiting religious charter schools…put religious believers and organizations to a choice between being religious – in the case of St. Isidore of Seville School, being ‘a fully Catholic school’ – and receiving funds that the state has chosen to allocate to privately operated charter schools,” he said.

“Outside of the education context, the state regularly partners with religious organizations to provide public services,” he added, pointing to foster care and refugee resettlement services as examples.

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The idea of opening a Catholic charter school has also raised concerns about the freedom of the school to operate in full alignment with Catholic teaching - for example, in curriculum decisions and hiring practices. 

But Farley and Schuler both emphasized that this is a risk with any school choice program that uses public funding, such as vouchers and tax credit scholarships. They said that Oklahoma allows for a relatively large amount of freedom as far as curriculum and general management for charter schools. 

“The question is whether the statutory framework in the state is favorable both to education choice and to protection of religious liberty. The answer to both of those in Oklahoma is yes,” Schuler said.

Farley expects that the school’s approval would be met with litigation. But he’s confident that the Constitution is on his side.

While critics of the proposed school argue that it violates the Constitution’s establishment clause, Farley countered that the Supreme Court has ruled multiple times in the last decade - in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, and Carson v. Makin - that if a state offers a generally available program, it cannot prohibit religious institutions from participating in that program solely because they're religious.

“It's pretty clear what the Supreme Court is telling states, and so the burden of proof here is really on the opposition,” Farley said.

“What they have to do is demonstrate why a charter program is any different than the other school choice program, whether it's a tax credit or a voucher or a scholarship that goes to a private religious institution…at the end of the day we're still talking about public funding going to a religious educational institution. So those protections that were afforded the institutions in those other cases, we think should apply to ours as well.”

If Oklahoma Catholics succeed in launching St. Isidore as a charter school, Farley thinks the model could spread to other states as well. But he cautioned that it would likely be a slow process, at least at first.

“There are 45 states that have charter programs of some sort and there are no two programs that are alike,” he said.

Oklahoma’s statutory arrangement for charter schools is fairly straightforward and limited in its regulations, compared to other states.

“Charter schools in Oklahoma essentially operate like private schools that happen to be publicly funded,” Farley said. “There's a lot of leeway given to the operation of those schools in terms of curriculum and management generally. So that's a favorable environment to do what we're trying to do.”

In other states, such as Texas, which have much more onerous requirements for charter schools, a similar arrangement would likely not be feasible, he added.

“There might be only five states where this would be something that would be workable, at least at this point.”

Still, he said, the general pattern with school choice programs is that when one state takes the lead and finds a way to implement a program successfully, other states take note and look at adapting the program to their own local circumstances.

“So that's generally what happens - you want somebody to be the guinea pig, and we are happy to be the guinea pig for this project.”

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