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Oklahoma Approves First Religious Charter School

Oklahoma Attorney General said school board members have 'exposed themselves and the State to potential legal action that could be costly'

An Oklahoma school board approved the application for a virtual Catholic charter school which will be the first religious school in the country funded by taxpayers. 

The Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma requested permission from the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board to create the St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Charter School. Although the attorney general has warned against approving the request, the school board voted 3-2 in favor of the online public charter school.

The Archdiocese’s application was initially denied 5-0 by the school board on April 11.

Speaking with Reuters after the vote, board chairman Robert Franklin stressed that the regulatory body was only ruling on whether or not the application met its standards – not the legality of the proposed school. He also noted it is not unusual for an application to be rejected initially and then later approved. 

The board reportedly took issue with potential conflicts in school governance, its funding structure, measurement methods to determine school and student outcomes, and a proposed special education program.

The Archdiocese had 30 days to revise its application and submit it again for another vote. 

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond warned that using public funding to create a religious school violated the Constitution.

“The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers,” said Drummond in a statement released on June 5. “It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars. In doing so, these members have exposed themselves and the State to potential legal action that could be costly.”

He formally withdrew an opinion from his predecessor, John O’Connor, in February. O’Connor wrote in December 2022 that he did not believe the United States Supreme Court “would accept the argument that, because charter schools are considered public for various purposes, that a state should be allowed to discriminate against religiously affiliated private participants who wish to establish and operate charter schools in accordance with their faith alongside other private participants.”

In addition to questions about the constitutionality of the proposed school, “concerns also surround possible disciplinary treatment of LGBTQ+ students and unmarried pregnant students, as well as potentially discriminatory employment practices for staff,” reports KGOU.

Those in favor of the virtual charter school argue it will allow Catholic families who live in rural areas to give their children a Catholic education. The effort’s organizers have also said students would not have to be Catholic to enroll. 

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt celebrated the school board’s decision to approve the application.

In a statement following the board’s vote, he said:

I applaud the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board’s courage to approve the authorization for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. This is a win for religious liberty and education freedom in our great state, and I am encouraged by these efforts to give parents more options when it comes to their child’s education.

Oklahomans support religious liberty for all and support an increasingly innovative educational system that expands choice. Today, with the nation watching, our state showed that we will not stand for religious discrimination.

St. Isidore of Seville will be open to students in kindergarten to grade 12 free of cost. Organizers have said the school will enroll 500 students initially during the 2024-2025 school year with the aim of expanding to 1,500.

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