Oklahoma Approves the Nation’s First Religious Charter School

Last Monday, the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 3-2 to approve a charter application submitted by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Diocese of Tulsa. The approval, backed by Governor Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent Ryan Walters, means that the nation’s first-ever religious charter school – the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School – could be coming to Oklahoma if the board’s decision survives legal scrutiny.

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools unbound from traditional K-12 regulations. In exchange for this regulatory freedom, charter schools must meet strict academic performance standards to remain open. The charter model encourages flexibility and innovation that often benefits students in the long run. Just this week, a new report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that “the typical charter school student in our national sample had reading and math gains that outpaces their peers in the [traditional public school] they would have otherwise attended.”

Recent legal victories in cases like Espinoza and Carson signal the Supreme Court’s belief that it is a First Amendment violation when government uses religion as the basis to exclude someone from participating in an otherwise publicly available program. In Espinoza, the Court held that Montana’s exclusion of religious schools from the state’s tax-credit scholarship program “discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution.” The Court issued a similar ruling in Carson, finding that “Maine’s ‘nonsectarian’ requirement for otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause.”

While the court has made clear its disapproval of so-called “Blaine Amendments,” which prohibit public money for religious schools and other institutions, charter schools present a variety of other questions that the Supreme Court may soon wrestle with. In another pending case, Charter Day School, Inc. v. Bonnie Peltier, the Court is being asked to consider the question of “whether a private entity that contracts with the State to operate a charter school engages in state action when it formulates a policy without coercion or encouragement by the government.” This week’s decision in Oklahoma will almost certainly be litigated as well, which may force the Court to decide whether charter schools can, in fact, be religious in their own right.

Ultimately, any future decisions by the Supreme Court or lower courts on these issues will be worth watching closely for state policymakers, as they could have significant ramifications for how charter schools are treated under the law and how they operate.

In Depth: Education

An excellent education has long been recognized as key to the American Dream. Unfortunately, the current monopolistic and expensive K-12 education system is failing our students, leaving them unprepared for college, careers, or life. Similarly, our higher education system is leaving students with higher debt burdens and fewer career guarantees…

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