catholic charter school
With a sign urging Statewide Virtual Charter School Board members to vote against a proposed Catholic virtual charter school, board Chairman Robert Franklin converses with executive director Rebecca Wilkinson before a meeting Monday, June 5, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

(Update: One day after publication of this article, the Tulsa World published a story detailing an email sent from Deputy Attorney General Niki Batt, who serves as legal counsel for the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, suggesting that Brian Bobek’s vote to approve the St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic School application may have been invalid because his term on the board had not officially started. Without Bobek’s vote, board members would be split 2-2 on approval of the school. This article remains in its original form.)

With audience members displaying signs that read “Charter schools are public schools, not Sunday schools” at a meeting today, Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board members approved a revised application for a virtual Catholic charter school despite objections from Chairman Robert Franklin and expectations that a lawsuit will follow.

Franklin and William Pearson voted against the application, but three of their peers chose to support the joint application from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa. Brian Bobek, who formerly served on the State Board of Education, voted in favor of approval despite Franklin’s request that he abstain since he had only been appointed to the board Friday. Nellie Tayloe Sanders and Scott Strawn also voted to approve the application.

Calling the action “unconstitutional” in a statement, Attorney General Gentner Drummond said legal action will be likely as a result of the vote.

“The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers,” Drummond said in his statement. “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.”

Catholic Conference of Oklahoma executive director Brett Farley celebrated the vote, and he indicated that the applicants are prepared for any legal action that could follow.

“We’re obviously excited that the board chose to approve our application,” Farley said after the meeting. “We’ve got a lot of great opportunities ahead of us, so we’re looking forward to taking advantage of those.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt also celebrated the vote.

“I applaud the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board’s courage to approve the authorization for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School,” Stitt said in a statement. “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.”

The SVCSB, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa will now enter into contract negotiations to determine the full nature of the board’s sponsorship of St. Isidore. The earliest the school could open is fall 2024, but that timeline could be delayed owing to potential lawsuits that could be filed to challenge the decision.

Because St. Isidore would probably be the first religious charter school in the nation, members seemed to be expecting a lawsuit no matter the outcome of the vote.

“[Farley] reminded me in a sidebar conversation that this is just part of the process. ‘You’re just part of the process. We intend for this to go to the court,'” Franklin said after the meeting. “And what I’m saying is, if that was the case, then we were role players, and that we should have followed the role that was within our purview. And I think some (members) stepped outside of that purview today.”

‘A sea change for American democracy’

Multiple organizations are already threatening legal action against the board for Monday’s vote, including the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based organization.

“As parents and taxpayers, we are gravely disappointed in today’s decision by the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board to approve our nation’s first state-funded religious school,” said OKPLAC Chairwoman Misty Bradley. “This unconstitutional decision is a violation of our religious liberty and an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars. The parents of OKPLAC will continue our work toward excellent, equitable public schools that accept all children even if that requires legal action.”

Americans United has been particularly vocal in its urging of members to reject the application. Calling the decision a “sea change for American democracy,” president and CEO Rachel Laser said her organization is preparing for court.

“State and federal law are clear: Charter schools are public schools that must be secular and open to all students,” Laser said in a statement. “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.”

Farley said the Catholic Church is prepared to fight for its proposed school in court.

“Well, obviously, we’re prepared for that if that comes,” Farley said. “Who knows? I don’t have a crystal ball. So we don’t know what’s going to happen, but if it does, we’ll be ready.”

‘We just stepped right back into a trap’

During Monday’s nearly three-hour meeting held solely to vote on the application, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Diocese of Tulsa presented their revised joint application for the proposed St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic School, addressing deficiencies identified by the board on May 9 that included constitutional questions of the proposed school’s legality.

Charter schools, which are public schools that can be privately run, are required by state statute to be non-sectarian. In fact, potential charter school sponsors, such as the SVCSB, are prohibited from sponsoring schools affiliated with a religious institution.

Attorneys for the Catholic Church argued Monday that recent U.S. Supreme Court cases made such provisions unconstitutional, and they cited former Attorney General John O’Connor’s opinion advising the same as reasons for members to approve the application.

But Drummond withdrew his predecessor’s opinion Feb. 24, advising members to reject the application while at the same time admitting “the law is currently unsettled” on the matter.

Outside of the constitutional questions, one of Franklin’s biggest remaining concerns dealt with independence of the new school’s board of directors regarding its management organization.

Because of the Archbishop of Oklahoma City and Bishop of Tulsa’s involvement with both the school board and the nonprofit that will manage the school, Franklin expressed concern about the board’s independence to provide oversight for the school.

“We just stepped right back into a trap,” Franklin told reporters after the meeting, referencing previous issues with management of Epic Charter Schools, which the SVCSB also sponsors.

Other members seemed to feel the issue had been resolved, saying that applicants had corrected all of the deficiencies previously identified, which included governance.

“In our oath, there’s a reason allegiance to the United States Constitution comes first, and I believe that a ‘No’ vote in this matter would violate my oath,” Strawn said shortly before making a motion to approve the application.

Monday’s result could have been different had House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) not replaced Barry Beauchamp with Bobek on Friday.

Bobek said he had “no comments” to questions about his sudden appointment to the board, but Franklin said he was surprised that Bobek took part in such a monumental decision given his lack of experience with the application process that began in February.

With the Legislature’s passage of SB 516, the SVCSB will cease to exist on July 1, 2024, and will be replaced by a Statewide Charter School Board. Signed by Stitt Monday, that act also includes provisions requiring charter schools to be non-sectarian.

(Correction: This article was updated at 5:36 p.m. on Monday, June 5, 2023 to correct reference to William Pearson’s name.)