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Oklahoma Catholics win right to establish 1st religious charter school

Girl listening to teacher through internet

Maria Symchych | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 06/07/23

Recent Supreme Court church-state case rulings encouraged Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Diocese of Tulsa to establish St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School.

What is regarded as the first publicly funded religious charter school in the United States will continue a centuries-old Catholic tradition of developing virtue in youngsters for the ultimate goal of “human flourishing,” said one of the Church officials behind the initiative. 

In a 3-to-2 vote on Monday, the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board gave approval to the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa to open the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, an institution where classroom instruction will be delivered over the internet. The state will fund the school 100%, even though Catholicism will be taught in the institution.

“The curriculum generally speaking is not going to be a whole lot different from what it is in our existing Catholic schools, except, obviously, that it’ll be moderated to ensure that it’s deliverable on a virtual platform,” Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, told Aleteia. “There will be some accommodations technologically for that, but in terms of just the content, it’s going to be the same thing we’re teaching – reading, writing, and arithmetic – but we’ll have Catholicism baked into it because that’s what we do – ultimately, toward the end of developing people and developing virtue, toward human flourishing.

“That’s what the Catholic Church has done for the better part of 500 years. We’re going to continue doing that, and the fact that we’re doing it in the context of a charter isn’t going to change that.”

Education Week defines a charter school as a “tuition-free school of choice that is publicly funded but independently run.”

Legal challenge

State approval of the St. Isidore school is expected to lead to a prolonged battle in the courts, possibly ending up at the Supreme Court and a decision on the constitutionality of such a venture. Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced that it was preparing legal action to fight the decision.

“It’s hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school families,” said Rachel Laser, Americans United president and chief executive. “This is a sea change for American democracy.”

But the Supreme Court already has delivered several favorable opinions in recent years. The 2017 Trinity Lutheran v. Comer case allowed public funding for a church school playground. In the 2020 Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue case, the Court ruled that states must allow religious schools to participate in programs that provide scholarships to students attending private schools. And in last year’s Carson v. Makin case, it ruled that the state of Maine may not exclude religious schools from a state tuition program. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority in that case, said the ruling did not require states to support religious education, but states that choose to subsidize private schools may not discriminate against religious ones.

Encouraging

Those decisions, as well as guidance from Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Initiative and a favorable opinion by Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor, encouraged the Archdiocese of Oklahoma and the Diocese of Tulsa to apply for state permission to open St. Isidore’s, Farley said. 

“There is a great need, particularly in the rural areas but also the special education space, for more options, and the prospect of building a brick and mortar school in a rural area is just cost prohibitive,” Farley said in an interview. “But if we were to partner with the state on this project for a very public benefit and that becomes a real possibility – certainly if we’re talking about a virtual operation it becomes even more possible; the possibilities are really endless at that point. We have a very long history of public-private partnership, where the state is leveraging the religious community to deliver public services. This kind of relationship predates the Constitution. So this is really nothing new. What we’re simply doing is saying ‘Look, we want to continue this partnership and meet the needs of these kids who have no other option’ [other than a public school]. So the financial partnership with the state makes all of this much more possible.”

Farley said the earliest the school can open would be 2024. The superintendents of schools from both the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Tulsa diocese will be spearheading its implementation.

As for objections based on church-state separation, Farley said he’s confident the new school will survive court scrutiny.

Responding to Laser’s statement that state and federal law are clear that “charter schools are public schools that must be secular,” he said, “Well, she’s just wrong. Supreme Court decisions three times now have contradicted that idea. And you know, it’s disingenuous to claim that charter schools are public schools, because there are 45 states that have charter programs and every single one of them are different. So to make a broad brush statement about all 45 of them like that is disingenuous.”

Tags:
CatholicismEducationPoliticsReligious Freedom
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