Last week, Oklahoma’s virtual charter school board voted 3-2 to approve the opening of the nation’s first religious charter school. If allowed to proceed as planned in 2024, the K-12 online school named St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School will be run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa, with religious teaching and Catholic doctrine woven into every aspect of the school’s program.
As a charter school — a public school that is independently managed — the St. Isidore school would be fully funded by taxpayer dollars. Since public schools aren’t supposed to provide religious education (even though they are permitted to teach about religion) the Oklahoma board’s decision sets the stage for a high-profile legal fight over the constitutionality of the plan and the boundaries of the separation of church and state under the Constitution. And that’s exactly what Oklahoma’s previously obscure virtual charter school board set out to do, with the active encouragement of the state’s Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt and the Republican-controlled state legislature.
The creation of religious charter schools is not a new issue for Oklahoma. It has been in the works for years. In addition to the consideration of vouchers, tax credits and other means to offer subsidies to parents to help pay for non-public school tuition, often at religious schools, the question of the legality of creating a religious charter school was presented in 2022 to Oklahoma’s then-Attorney General John M. O’Connor. He opined that Supreme Court precedent supported the view that publicly funded religious charter schools are permissible. That opinion was withdrawn by the state’s current attorney general, Gentner Drummond, who recommended strongly against the plan.
But Stitt was on a mission. Three days before the board vote on the religious charter school proposal, Stitt appointed a new board member who provided the deciding vote in support of the plan. Stitt celebrated the board’s “courage” and declared, “This is a win for religious liberty and education freedom.” His attorney general, on the other hand, bemoaned the fact that “board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars.”
While some government money already goes to a wide range of religious private schools throughout the country, including Jewish day schools and yeshivot, those funds are earmarked for secular or other non-religious purposes like health and safety issues, special education, secular textbooks and busing. And although organized efforts are being pursued to expand funding, Jewish schools have been sensitive to what has been understood until now as the need to steer clear of government funding for religious education and programming. As unlikely as it seems, that could change under the Oklahoma case.
Shortly after the board’s vote, Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced that it is preparing legal action to challenge the decision. Proponents for and against the plan are lining up on respective sides of the issue. The case will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court. And advocates on both sides can’t wait to get there. ■