OKLAHOMA CITY (BP) – A Catholic diocese has won approval to open a charter school in Oklahoma slated to become the first publicly funded religious school in the nation amid concerns of separation of church and state.
Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved June 5, by a vote of 3-2, the bid from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa to establish St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School (SISCVS). The board rejected the proposal in April, but has said the earlier decision was not based on the legality of the request, but rather on problems with the application.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has supported the proposal, praised the board’s decision as “a win for religious liberty and education freedom in our great state.
“Oklahomans support religious liberty for all and support an increasingly innovative educational system that expands choice,” Stitt said. “Today, with the nation watching, our state showed that we will not stand for religious discrimination.”
The legality of such a school is in question. While Oklahoma’s constitution bans the use of public funds for charter schools, John O’Connor, Oklahoma’s immediate past attorney general, said in December 2022 that the state’s ban could be a violation of the U.S. Constitution. But Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, who succeeded O’Connor in 2023, advised the board against the proposal.
“The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers,” Drummond said after the June 5 vote. “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.”
Drummond said the U.S. Supreme Court will have a chance to settle the issue in the pending case of Peltier v. Charter Day school, Inc., filed in September 2022. The case involves a North Carolina charter school that receives 95 percent of its funding from the government, but requires girls to wear skirts, asserting that Title 9 barring gender discrimination does not apply to charter schools.
“I am hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will definitely rule on this unsettled issue next term,” Drummond has said.
SISCVS could cost taxpayers $25.7 million, Reuters reported in April. The school, named for the patron saint of the internet, would follow a curriculum approved by the Catholic church and as proposed, would eventually serve up to 1,500 kindergarteners through high schoolers. The virtual format is designed to serve students in rural communities.
Some members of the public opposed the charter school at the board’s April 11 meeting, contending it violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.