OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – In a 3-2 vote Monday, the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual Charter School’s application to be the first publicly funded religious charter school in the United States.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Diocese of Tulsa attempted application approval before.
At the time, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond said approval of an application that is overtly religious in its teachings and operations will set a precarious precedent.
“While many Oklahomans undoubtedly support charter schools sponsored by various Christian faiths, the precedent created by approval of the … application will compel approval of similar applications by all faiths,” Drummond wrote. “I doubt most Oklahomans would want their tax dollars to fund a religious school whose tenets are diametrically opposed to their own faith. Unfortunately, the approval of a charter school by one faith will compel the approval of charter schools by all faiths, even those most Oklahomans would consider reprehensible and unworthy of public funding.”
In April, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 5-0 to deny the application, worried about state statutes and the Oklahoma Constitution, which states that public money cannot be used for religious purposes.
Now, the Archdiocese’s re-application has been approved in a 3-2 vote.
“We are obviously excited that the board chose to pull our application and we’ve got a lot of great opportunities ahead of us,” said Brett Farley, executive director of Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, and future board member of the school. “We’re looking forward to taking advantage of those.”
Following the vote, the board’s chairman Dr. Robert Franklin stepped down.
“We just stepped right back into a trap,” said Franklin. “I would like to say that I was surprised. I was anticipating that the convictions by which we’d signed oaths to follow the constitution of the state of Oklahoma and the new Charter school act that was just literally signed today by the governor, which says very clearly in that provision that we shouldn’t. But we did.”
“I lost a little hope and a little faith in what what probably should have been the right thing. But again, each of us had to vote our convictions,” said Franklin.
In the 11th hour, a new board member was at the table for the vote. The Speaker of the House, Charles McCall, appointed Brian Bobek to the board on Friday. He has experience with the state department of education. Bobek was the deciding factor, becoming the third yes vote.
He had no comment after the decision.
Drummond is once again cautioning education leaders of the legal action and unconstitutionality of the school’s approval.
“The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers,” Drummond said. “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.”
Interfaith Alliance president and CEO Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush says the precedent is dangerous.
“Public money belongs in public schools. Oklahoma’s decision to greenlight the nation’s first religious charter school opens the floodgates for taxpayer-funded discrimination and sullies the constitutional tenet that religion and government remain separate. With public schools under relentless attack by Christian nationalists, it has never been more important for people of faith and conscience to stand up for students. Every child deserves the right to be safe, accepted, and respected at school, regardless of who they are or what they believe,” Rev. Raushenbush said. “Oklahoma has now set a dangerous precedent that threatens students, teachers, and taxpayers. Taxpayer money should never be used to fund religious instruction and it is now up to the state to at least ensure St. Isidore abides by the federal nondiscrimination protections guaranteed in public schools.”
State Superintendent Ryan Walters, however, says it’s a step in the right direction.
“This decision reflects months of hard work, and more importantly, the will of the people of
Oklahoma. I encouraged the board to approve this monumental decision, and now the U.S.’s first religious charter school will be welcomed by my administration. I have fought for school choice in all forms and this further empowers parents. We will make sure every Oklahoma parent has the opportunity to decide what is best for their child,” said Walters.
Gov. Kevin Stitt says he applauds the approval.
“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,” said Stitt.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State says it is preparing legal action against the school’s approval.
“It’s hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school families than the state establishing the nation’s first religious public charter school. This is a sea change for American democracy. Americans United will work with our Oklahoma and national partners to take all possible legal action to fight this decision and defend the separation of church and state that’s promised in both the Oklahoma and U.S. Constitutions,” said Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser. “State and federal law are clear: Charter schools are public schools that must be secular and open to all students. No public-school family should fear that their child will be required by charter schools to take theology classes or be expelled for failing to conform to religious doctrines. And the government should never force anyone to fund religious education. In a country built on the principle of separation of church and state, public schools must never be allowed to become Sunday schools.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 8% of adult Oklahomans identify as Catholic.