Nation’s first religious charter school receives green light to open in Oklahoma next year

St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Charter School plans to open for the 2024-25 school year

By: - October 9, 2023 5:00 pm

The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board meets Monday at the Oklahoma History Center to consider a charter contract for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Charter School. The board voted 3-2 to approve the contract. (Photo by Nuria Martinez-Keel/Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — The nation’s first Catholic charter school cleared its final bureaucratic hurdle and could open next year, barring a court order forbidding it.

St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Charter School will be the first state-funded religious school. The school, created by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa, is expected to open for the 2024-25 school year with a first-year enrollment goal of 500 students.

The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 3-2 on Monday to approve a charter contract for St. Isidore of Seville.

The school would provide a free, online education to students in all parts of Oklahoma. Although it will be expressly Catholic, the school’s contract states no student will be denied admission on the basis of religion, lack of faith, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

At this stage, only a court order could forbid the school from opening. A lawsuit was filed in July in Oklahoma County District Court asking for exactly that, but a judge has yet to make a ruling. 

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is leading the legal effort against the Catholic charter school.

“The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board is continuing on a misguided path to create the nation’s first religious public charter school in clear violation of Oklahoma law and the state’s promise of church-state separation and public schools that are open to all,” the group said in a statement Monday.

A spokesperson for Oklahoma Catholic officials didn’t immediately return a request for comment Monday.

The charter contract sets the terms of operation for the school and determines what regulations it is and, crucially, is not obligated to obey.

The statewide board oversees all virtual charter schools in the state. Until now, all of those schools have had a contract requiring them to be non-sectarian.

Oklahoma law and the state Constitution explicitly forbid charter schools, like all schools that rely on public funding, from affiliating with any religious sect.

The decision to approve a contract without those requirements raises the question of whether other virtual charter schools would ask for similar terms as St. Isidore’s.

“I do think ultimately this is a contract that will serve as a consistent document for all of our schools,” board member Scott Strawn said during the meeting.

The statewide virtual charter school board voted 3-2 in June to approve St. Isidore’s creation. Monday’s vote encodes the school’s methods of teaching and operating, which will be Catholic in all ways, school officials have said.

Board members who voted in favor of the school in June said they did so to uphold the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections.

Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board chairperson Robert Franklin leads a meeting Monday at the Oklahoma History Center. (Photo by Nuria Martinez-Keel/Oklahoma Voice)

The board’s chairperson, Robert Franklin, said that doesn’t square with the Oklahoma Constitution nor with the state’s charter school act. He voted against St. Isidore in June and again on Monday.

“(The Catholic church) can without our purview, manage a school, do a school, design the school, practice their faith, do it in amazing fidelity, but if you’re asking to have the state taxpayer dollars, then some other entity’s got to make that decision because it doesn’t align (with state law),” Franklin said after Monday’s meeting.

Catholic officials contend charter schools never were public schools, despite most of their funding coming from state and federal dollars, and therefore they should be free to adopt a faith like private schools. Charter schools are granted more autonomy over their curriculum and hiring than traditional public schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court already ruled that religious schools could receive government funding from grants and school voucher programs. It could take years of litigation for the court system to decide whether a publicly funded school could promote a particular religion.

St. Isidore will be part of the Catholic church’s evangelizing mission, according to the school’s own description. Archbishop Paul S. Coakley and Bishop David A. Konderla will choose the school’s Board of Directors, and it will be based in the archdiocese’s Oklahoma City headquarters.

While Oklahoma’s governor and state superintendent advocated for the religious charter school, Attorney General Gentner Drummond has opposed it. Drummond has said there’s no legal precedent to support the idea that publicly funded charter schools are private.

“The Attorney General has consistently expressed his disapproval of forcing taxpayers to fund religious teachings,” his spokesperson, Leslie Berger, said in a statement Monday. “He will review the details of the approved contract and determine the appropriate next steps.”

Drummond’s office no longer will provide legal services to the statewide virtual charter school board. The board on Monday hired attorney Daniel Carsey to be its general counsel instead, pending the attorney general’s approval.

The board first contracted with Carsey in July for legal advice on all St. Isidore-related matters. It also hired the national Christian law firm Alliance Defending Freedom to represent the board in litigation regarding the school.

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nuria Martinez-Keel
Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.

MORE FROM AUTHOR