What’s Next After Oklahoma Catholic Charter School Breakthrough?

Some key takeaways from Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, about the first-in-the-nation Catholic charter school with the additional benefit of ‘elevating the soul’

Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma. speaks.
Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma. speaks. (photo: Courtesy photo / Brett Farley)

Days after Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter Board approved the Archdiocese of Oklahoma’s proposal to establish what could be the first Catholic charter school in the nation, Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, discussed the breakthrough and next steps with Register Senior Editor Joan Frawley Desmond.

Oklahoma’s approval of the school has drawn national attention, with a pair of articles analyzing the decision published on June 8 by The New York Times and The Washington Post

While the proposed school still has some hurdles to clear, it has the strong support of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, who applauded the approval as “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.” 

And, according to Farley, the first-in-the-nation Catholic charter school intends to provide this new online venue along with the additional benefit of “elevating the soul.”

 

On June 5, the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, which oversees all virtual charter schools in the state, voted 3-2 in favor of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma establishing St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. If all goes well, St. Isidore could be the first Catholic charter school in the nation. Did you expect this outcome?

We knew the board was going to have a vote on Monday, because they're actually required by statute to do it within a certain amount of time. And we were fairly confident that this was going to be the result because of the quality of our presentation and application and because of the comments that members of the board had made previously. The final vote was 3-2 in favor of the proposal.

 

The first time you submitted the proposal it was turned down and you made further changes. What were the major tweaks?

There were three substantive changes. 

They wanted us to do a deeper dive on the technology question: How are we actually going to deliver this content largely to the rural areas? 

They wanted a deeper dive into the special-education component: What kind of curriculum are we talking about? How are we going to do assessments?

The 800-pound gorilla was, you know: How do you think your application is justified legally, in terms of state statute and the state Constitution, which still currently prohibit sectarian charter schools? 

We presented arguments for why we think the board should vote for this. We had with us our Notre Dame counsel, John Meiser [managing director for domestic litigation for University of Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Initiative]. They had written the legal memo that was included in the revised application. The Religious Liberty Initiative essentially presented a 30,000-foot overview of what that memo laid out in terms of constitutional argument in favor of our application. 

 

What else was key to your success?

Oklahoma’s former Attorney General John O’Connor released a legal opinion last year after the election.

His opinion was based on what the U.S. Supreme Court has said in three cases, opining that a state can't discriminate against religious organizations because they're religious when we're talking about public programs. That opinion really laid the groundwork for a lot of the support that we have received.

The court has said that Blaine Amendments — which we have in Oklahoma — and any statutes that flow from them, are a violation of the First Amendment. 

 

What are your next steps? Are you still a year out from opening the school, at this point?

We can’t open a school before fall 2024. We need to put a lot of things in place. 

At the next board meeting, we have to go through the process of negotiating a contract. The board must have a contract for all the things that the school will execute, and it has the prerogative to negotiate its own contract, as it comports with statute.

We expect that will probably be contentious, though maybe not as contentious as the application approval was.

Once that's done, then we’re off to the races from that point forward and actually building the school and putting programs in place. Our initial projection is that we’re going to limit enrollment to 500, and then we’ll scale from there.

 

Where are likely areas of contention?

They flow out of the nonsectarian provisions in state statute. [But since] the board has already voted to approve an application in spite of those things, then they’re not likely going to backtrack. The three votes that we got are very strong votes. The three members who voted Yes had commented, in the context of the board meeting, that we’ve got a real opportunity to provide more education to kids that need it, particularly the special-ed category.

 

What are Catholic families in rural parts of the state looking for? 

No. 1 is content. No. 2 is the delivery of the content. The sad fact is that, with maybe some exceptions, most rural students have no access to AP courses in science and math. These kids are clamoring for more options. We will be able to deliver that while elevating the soul. Catholic schools far outperform their public-school counterparts in test scores and so forth. And because it’s a virtual school, we’ll be able to deliver it in a way that is more easily consumable, with some students taking classes in their own home and others gathering in some sort of pod arrangement in another person’s home or even at the parish. Technology is allowing us to do some things that otherwise would be cost-prohibitive. 

 

Oklahoma is a red state that has embraced school choice. That could make a huge difference to the success of this venture.

Coming out of the pandemic, there was a great awakening largely among parents. In Oklahoma, the polling across party lines is 75%-plus approval for increased school-choice options. Even pro-public-school members of the legislature support expanding school choice in ways that we never would have expected. We’re taking advantage of this wave, and we’re in favor of everything that expands school choice for parents, as long as it’s done with prudence. We want to put certain safeguards in place, particularly with respect to religious liberty.

Folks on both sides of the ideological spectrum are concerned about tax dollars going to a school that is explicitly teaching religious content. And the point that I make most often is if that’s their concern, they should know it is already happening. Catholic schools are already taking tax dollars. Whether [those funds are] going to the parent and then ultimately to the school or going directly to the school, the dollars are ending up in the same place, as a function of the parents’ choice. That’s key. What’s driving these transactions are parents making a choice for where they want their kids to be educated.

 

What about legal challenges? Some of your opponents have raised the possibility of a legal challenge.

The only thing that would stop this is a court decision telling us we can’t do it. The court could grant an injunction, pending a final decision, and we would not be able to open our doors until the court had rendered a final judgment.

We would expect our opponents to ask for that. But it’s anybody’s guess whether it is going to happen.

It could be tomorrow; it could be next year. 


This interview has been edited for style and length.

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