Catholic charter school
Statewide Virtual Charter School Board members chat before their meeting on Tuesday, April 11, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board disapproved an application from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa to operate a virtual Catholic charter school at their meeting Tuesday afternoon. The entities are expected to modify elements of their application and seek board approval again within 30 days.

With state Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters — no longer Secretary of Education — in attendance, members discussed the merits of the Catholic Church’s application and the legality of granting approval to a religious charter school despite state law prohibiting such an occurrence. Questions about whether the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution allows a religious organization to operate a charter school have been hotly debated across the nation over the past year.

Stating that they were trying to address the merits and legality of the matter, board members ultimately voted 5-0 to disapprove the application for the proposed St. Isidore of Seville virtual charter school for eight reasons:

  1. Concerns over the proposed school’s special education program
  2. Lack of clarity on its pedagogical approach
  3. Concerns with its proposed governance and management structure
  4. Concerns about its ability to provide connectivity and IT support to rural students
  5. Concerns over its funding structure
  6. Miscellaneous consistency issues throughout the application
  7. Legal issues prohibiting religious charter schools
  8. Concerns with the proposed school’s ability to improve overall student outcomes.

“(The board’s decision was) not a surprise to us,” said Catholic Conference of Oklahoma executive director Brett Farley. “This is a fairly normal part of the application process. It gives us more time to address their concerns, and so we’ll do that and come back and present those and see where we go.”

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Diocese and Tulsa now have 30 days to correct the deficiencies in the application as identified by the SVCSB. In recent years, a variety of factors have challenged the finances of Catholic schools around the country.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s president and CEO, Rachel Laser, celebrated the board’s vote in a press release.

“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,” Laser said. “This would be a sea change for American democracy.”

Caution urged during public comment period

Board members’ biggest issue at Tuesday’s meeting seemed to be the legality of the proposed school itself.

Currently, Oklahoma statute requires charter schools to be nonreligious and nonsectarian. Additionally, potential charter school sponsors, such as the SVCSB, cannot sponsor charter schools that would be affiliated with religious or sectarian organizations.

In December, then-Attorney General John O’Connor issued an official opinion arguing that the nonreligious and nonsectarian sections of the statute “likely violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and therefore should not be enforced.”

But shortly after taking office, new Attorney General Gentner Drummond withdrew the opinion, saying the guidance “issued by my predecessor misuses the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion.”

In his withdrawal letter, Drummond also encouraged members of the SVCSB to reject the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s application.

“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,” Drummond wrote.

Others made a similar argument during public comments to the board at today’s meeting, including restaurant owner Sean Cummings, a graduate of Oklahoma Catholic schools.

“Today, I’m a little embarrassed to say I’m a Catholic because we’re willing to violate the actual state Constitution,” Cummings said. “If you vote ‘yes,’ you are not a victim, you are a volunteer when Lucien Greaves of the Satanic Temple wants to apply for a religious charter school.”

Each of the six people who spoke in the public comments section of the meeting opposed approval of the proposed Catholic school. Many of them touted their own religious backgrounds before urging board members to reject the application.

The Rev. Shannon Fleck, who works as executive director of the Oklahoma Faith Network, said approving the application and giving state funds to a religious institution would hurt religious freedoms in the state.

“The faith leaders I’ve worked with every day in secular interactions and faith-based (interactions) are highly concerned about the removal of this freedom,” Fleck said. “This decision will grow legs, and it will walk, and at some point, it will run.”

‘May or may not really be truly settled law’

But in his February letter, Drummond also admitted that “the law is currently unsettled” on the question of whether charter schools are state actors.

Other SVCSB members seemed to feel the same way, and they discussed the application and legal implications of their decision for more than an hour.

“It’s hard for me to accept it’s settled law and therefore then expose myself — theoretically — to immunity for something that may or may not really be truly settled law,” new board member Scott Strawn said.

Board members seemed to be expecting a lawsuit regardless of what decision they ultimately make on the Catholic Church’s the application owing to the law’s “unsettled” nature. As a result, members expressed concern over whether they would qualify for legal “immunity” if they were individually named in a lawsuit.

The board’s legal counsel, who works for the Attorney General’s office, said board members could generally be considered immune from personal liability in a suit, as long as they followed their counsel’s advice and upheld the law of Oklahoma.

This advice did not reassure Strawn or Nellie Tayloe Sanders, a new board member who cited the conflicting AG opinions as evidence that state law is not settled on this issue.

“It sounds like it’s a conflict of interest to the AG’s office who has had contradictory opinions for us,” Sanders said.

Walters, who serves on the board as an ex-officio, non-voting member, attempted to assuage members’ fears.

“This is an incredibly important decision in the state of Oklahoma,” Walters said. “I will stand by every one of you in a vote to protect religious liberties and more opportunities for kids. Whatever I can do, I’ll be there to help any way that I can.”

In the same speech, Walters also called those who made public comments to the board opposing approval of the proposed Catholic charter school “radical leftists.”

“I know that you all heard from a lot of different folks, and you heard from some radical leftists that their hatred for the Catholic Church blinds them in doing what’s best for kids,” Walters said. “Their hatred for the Catholic Church has caused them to attack our very foundational religious liberties in attacking this school.”

Robert Franklin, the board’s chairperson, pushed back on Walters’ assertion.

“No disrespect to you, but I didn’t hear a radical position, nor did I hear an attack to the Catholic Church,” Franklin said. “So just from the chair’s perspective, I just want to go on record and say that I didn’t hear that from these comments today.”

Walters quickly responded.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Franklin. The attacks have been really clear that they do not want religious entities involved in education, and so they have come up and they have said it to you directly,” Walters said. “I’ve seen the letters, I’ve seen the emails, I’ve heard from these folks time and time again, and I think that we should distance ourselves from allowing radicals to inject their way into this and overly politicize this decision.”