Oklahoma rejects taxpayer-funded Catholic school... for now
The virtual Catholic charter school, if approved, will likely ignite a fierce legal battle
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This afternoon, Oklahoma's Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 5-0 to “disapprove” an application from St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic Charter School. That’s great news, but it merely delays a more important vote next month, when the board members could give a green light to the creation of the first Catholic charter school in the nation. (Their support would be the first major regulatory hurdle in the process of launching the school.)
As if there wasn’t enough concern about publicly funded charter schools siphoning vital dollars from public schools, the potential merging of church and state makes this proposal all the more toxic.
The problems with a taxpayer-funded Catholic school
Unlike public schools, this Catholic school would not require teachers to be certified, would not have to accept openly LGBTQ teachers, and would explicitly promote Catholic doctrine during school hours. There’s also the possibility that students who become pregnant could get expelled—along with trans students just for existing—and that sex education would be omitted from the curriculum. Then toss in the fact that this kind of school wouldn’t have the resources to take on special needs students. (“That is something we will need to develop,” said Lara Schuler, senior director of Catholic education at the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, during a presentation in February.)
All the while, taxpayers will be footing the bill.
Earlier this year, Brett Farley, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, refused to address any of those concerns. He said that those were all hypothetical situations that he couldn’t speak to since there were no actual cases in front of him… even though Catholic doctrine has no problem addressing hypothetical sins.
The proposed K-12 school says it would help Catholics in rural parts of Oklahoma obtain a faith-based education. The Supreme Court has already said that if taxpayer dollars are available for general programs, an institution can’t be excluded from consideration just because it’s religious. The Catholic Church is now using that argument to justify the creation of this charter school.
They’re fully ignoring the will of Oklahoma’s voters who rejected a 2016 ballot measure that would have repealed the Blaine Amendment—the part of the State Constitution that bans public money being used for religious purposes. (They rejected that measure on the same night Donald Trump was elected!)
What Oklahoma’s attorneys general have said about the Catholic school
But it’s not like the Catholic Church is acting on its own here. They had the support of the former execution-obsessed state attorney general John O’Connor, who wrote in a (non-binding) opinion last December that everything would be fine if the state approved the charter school:
But late last year before leaving office, then-Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor issued an advisory opinion that the state’s current ban on publicly funded charter schools being operated by sectarian and religious organizations could be a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment “and therefore should not be enforced.”
That’s the legal defense now being exploited by the Catholics behind this school.
At heart, the AG opinion misunderstands the nature of charter schools. “Reclassifying charter schools as private actors would be a sea change in the law that would upend the entire educational landscape in Oklahoma. It has always been the understanding of lawmakers, the government, and charter schools themselves that they are public schools and subject to the U.S. Constitution,” AU’s letter explains. AU also notes that a 2007 Oklahoma Attorney General opinion affirmed that charter schools are “part of the public school system.”
For what it’s worth, Attorney General Gentner Drummond, the Republican who defeated O’Connor in the 2022 primary and later won the general election, took AU’s side on this one. In February, Drummond formally withdrew O’Connor’s opinion:
“Religious liberty is one of our most fundamental freedoms,” Drummond wrote. “It allows us to worship according to our faith, and to be free from any duty that may conflict with our faith. The Opinion as issued by my predecessor misuses the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion.”
“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.”
I don’t say this often, but the Oklahoma attorney general is right.
The application was discussed during a pivotal board meeting today
This afternoon, during a meeting that got plenty of media attention, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board expressed concerns about the conflicting statements from the attorneys general, especially at the idea that they could be sued in a personal capacity for doing something that violates the law.
After hours of discussion, they voted to reject the application as is and give the Catholic school board members another month to address a number of concerns—both religious and non-religious—about their proposal. Among the concerns: how its board is managed, how the school would address special education, and why the Catholics filing the application believe they’re on the right side of the law on this matter.
Once they hear back, the SVCSB will have to take another vote on whether or not to approve the charter school. Today just delayed the inevitable, albeit for good reason.
The big concern is that there will absolutely be lawsuits over this school because, despite all its supporters’ earlier claims, the charter school is not analogous to the situation in Maine (that the Supreme Court said was legal). This quite literally violates state law. It would also open the floodgates to other religious schools that care less about giving children a comprehensive education and more about making sure they’re fully indoctrinated with one group’s propaganda. (During the public comments portion of today’s meeting, one speaker warned the board that allowing a Catholic charter school to move forward could put them in a bind if The Satanic Temple made a similar request in the future. Lucien’s Law strikes again.)
There’s a more general problem here as well: Public schools and the students in them will inevitably suffer as more funding gets whittled away for religious factories. The state’s already struggling public education system can’t afford to lose more resources.
Another issue: If having this school is so damn important to the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, why don’t they just open up a private school? The Catholic Church is many things, but cash-deprived isn’t one of them. Schuler said months ago that that they simply couldn’t compete against other free virtual schools that get taxpayer funding. But traditional public schools receive the same kind of dollars and these Catholics have no problem playing in that arena, so the argument doesn’t carry much weight. If they want public money to create the school, it seems reasonable to demand that they play by public rules.
During today’s meeting, all of the people who delivered public comments—every single one of them—spoke against the proposal. They were hardly atheist zealots; many were religious leaders who supported church/state separation and strong public education. The only real defender of the school was Ryan Walters, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, who delivered an embarrassing MAGA-monologue (at the 2:10:48 mark):
… We have here an application to provide more opportunities for kids and to show Oklahoma is a state that truly values religious freedom. I know that you all have heard from a lot of different folks, and you’ve heard from some radical leftists that their hatred for the Catholic Church blinds them [from] doing what’s best for kids. Their hatred for the Catholic Church has caused them to attack our very foundation of religious liberties in attacking this school…
Even the board chair responded to that rant by saying he didn’t hear from any “radical” leftists, or hear any attacks against the Catholic Church, during the public comments part of the meeting. It was a polite way for him to tell Walters to shut up with his extreme conservative rhetoric.
Honestly, that speech was a bad move on Walters’ part. He shot himself in the foot while speaking to a board that was already jittery about moving forward with the proposal. If they were ambivalent before, he may have inadvertently pushed them to vote against it. Which is exactly what they did for the time being.
All of this could be moot very soon. Jennifer Palmer, an education reporter with Oklahoma Watch, pointed out that this board is currently on the verge of getting dissolved and replaced by a new board with broader reach and more power in the hands of the (Republican) governor, who would get to appoint a greater share of board members. For now, with the modicum of freedom it still has, the current board chose to delay a final vote.
Even after the application addresses the board’s concerns, though, approving it would still be a disastrous decision that would create far more problems than it would solve. There’s no good reason, ethically or legally, to use taxpayer dollars to fund private religious education. Even if the proposed charter school did everything right, its desire to promote Catholicism ought to be a non-starter for state officials.
The board could have just said that today. Instead, they’ll have to make that decision next month.
But after listening to the bulk of today’s meeting, several board members didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about moving forward. Not now and perhaps not later. Here’s hoping they stick with their gut instincts.
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