Oklahoma approved what would be the nation’s first religious charter school on Monday, handing a victory to Christian conservatives but opening the door to a constitutional battle over whether taxpayer dollars can directly fund religious schools.
The online school, St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, is to be run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa, with religious teachings embedded in the curriculum.
But as a charter school — a type of public school that is independently managed — it would be funded by taxpayer dollars.
After a nearly three-hour meeting, and despite concerns raised by its legal counsel, the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved the school in a 3-to-2 vote, including a yes vote from a member who was appointed on Friday. The relatively obscure board is made up of appointees by Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican who supports religious charter schools, and leaders of the Republican-controlled State Legislature.
The decision sets the stage for a high-profile legal fight over the barrier between church and state in education, at a time when other aspects of public education are being challenged. Seizing on debates over parents’ rights, Republican lawmakers, including in Oklahoma, have increasingly pushed for alternatives to public schools, such as vouchers and tax credits, which offer subsidies to parents to help pay for private tuition, often at religious schools.
While some government money already goes to religious schools — for example, Hasidic schools in New York City receive public money through various programs while also charging tuition — St. Isidore would be fully paid for by the government.
Within minutes of the vote, 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, the group’s president and chief executive. “This is a sea change for American democracy.”
Brett Farley, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, which represents the Catholic Church on policy issues in Oklahoma and was behind the proposal, said he welcomed a legal challenge, pointing to recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court that have signaled support for directing taxpayer money to religious schools.
“We believe we are in the right,” he said, adding, “This is a victory for parents, for school choice and for religious liberty.”
In key Supreme Court rulings in 2020 and 2022, the court ruled that religious schools could not be excluded from state programs that allow parents to send their children to private schools using government-financed scholarship or tuition programs. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that while states were not required to support religious education, if a state chose to subsidize any private schools, it could not discriminate against religious ones.
Supporters in Oklahoma applied similar arguments to St. Isidore, contending that excluding religious schools from charter funding was a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom.
“Not only may a charter school in Oklahoma be religious, but indeed it would be unlawful to prohibit the operation of such a school,” the school’s application stated.
The move was opposed by a range of groups, including pastors and religious leaders in Oklahoma, advocates for public schools and members of the charter school movement.
“The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is trying to make charter schools into something they are not,” said Nina Rees, the chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Since they arose in the 1990s, charter schools have been public schools funded with taxpayer money. They are meant to offer innovation and flexibility; students can enroll from any school zone, for example. In 2020, about 8 percent of public schools in the United States were charter schools.
A key legal question is whether charter schools are “state actors,” representing the government, or “private actors,” more akin to government contractors. That question is central to another case, out of North Carolina, which the Supreme Court is weighing whether to take up.
In Oklahoma, the state board had been under intense political pressure. During Monday’s meeting, the chairman of the board, Robert Franklin, had been outwardly wary. “This is uncharted territory,” he said, before voting against approving the school.
Top state Republicans had disagreed over whether a religious charter school was allowable.
After the vote, Governor Stitt hailed the board’s “courage” and declared, “This is a win for religious liberty and education freedom.”
But the newly elected Republican attorney general, Gentner Drummond, had opposed the charter school. “It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars,” he said on Monday.
Oklahoma has about two dozen charter schools, with many charter students getting their education online. St. Isidore, considered the patron saint of the internet, would not open sooner than the fall of 2024, offering online classes to about 500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.