Oklahoma Plans First Catholic Charter School

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is partnering with the Diocese of Tulsa in a joint application to the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.

The promise of religious charter schools must be weighed against the peril of government entanglement, and some bishops have already signaled their views on the matter.
The promise of religious charter schools must be weighed against the peril of government entanglement, and some bishops have already signaled their views on the matter. (photo: Shutterstock)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Propelled by rising demand for stronger, depoliticized K-12 academics, and a string of Supreme Court rulings that have expanded educational options for religious families, school-choice initiatives are gaining traction across the nation.

That promising trend could reach a new inflection point in Oklahoma, where the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is partnering with the Diocese of Tulsa in a joint application to the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. The application will be filed by the end of January, and if the board approves the proposal, the local Church could soon be operating the first religious charter school in the country.

“We have been following the trajectory of Supreme Court decisions on school choice versus the public-school monopoly,” Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, told the Register, as he explained the local Church’s decision to jump on the opportunity provided by the high court’s jurisprudence.

In just five years, three Supreme Court rulings have dramatically boosted school choice and parental rights in education: Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer (2017), Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020), and Carson v. Makin (2022).

The rulings have steadily advanced the narrative on faith-inclusive school-choice programs that now pass constitutional muster, noted Farley, building a foundation for change at the state level.

Lance Izumi, senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute, a California-based education-reform think tank, echoed Farley’s judgment, but cautioned that Church leaders would need to tread carefully.

Carson v. Makin does open the door to more possibilities, though it is unclear how wide that door will be,” said Izumi.

“Religious organizations must still consider whether they want to take advantage of this. There are some benefits, but also issues with government entanglement.”

Carson v. Makin

Last June, in their most recent decision, the justices overturned Maine’s ban on using public funds at religious schools.

In Carson v. Makin, the 6-3 majority opinion held that “Maine’s ‘nonsectarian’ requirement for otherwise generally available tuition-assistance payments to parents who live in school districts that do not operate a secondary school of their own violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”

The question now, said Farley, is whether and how religious charter schools fit into this new constitutional framework.

“After Carson, if a state offers a school-choice program, it is required to include religious schools,” he noted. “Does that also include religious charter schools?”

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma and the Diocese of Tulsa’s decision to move forward with their application for a statewide virtual charter school followed a Dec. 1 legal opinion, issued by Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor. The guidance came after Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City asked the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board to provide confirmation that its “application will not be denied because of our religious affiliation or because of the integration of religion into our schools.”

The attorney general’s non-binding legal opinion concluded that Oklahoma statutes barring sectarian organizations from operating charter schools in the state likely violated the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“In the past five years alone, the U.S. Supreme Court has prevented officials in three states from excluding religious adherents from different types of public benefit programs relating to pre-K, primary, or secondary schools,” stated the attorney general.

“As it did in Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza, the U.S. Supreme Court found [in Makin] that an ‘interest in separating church and state ‘more fiercely’ than the federal Constitution ... ‘cannot qualify as compelling’ in the face of the infringement of free exercise.’”

“Only an actual Establishment Clause violation could suffice, according to the Court,” he added.

Challenges Posed

Addressing the specific challenge posed by taxpayer dollars funding a Church-run virtual charter school, he asserted: “It is not a problem that ... a substantial amount of public funds could be sent to religious organizations or their affiliates. As the U.S. Supreme Court emphasized in Carson, ‘a neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause.’ No student is forced to attend a charter school — it is one option among several for parents.”

Still, the attorney general acknowledged that the archdiocese’s application could face other hurdles unrelated to constitutional questions. Religious charter schools cannot “necessarily operate however they want in regard to ‘programs, admission policies, employment practices’ and the like,” he warned.

“For instance, as it currently stands, federal law does not in all likelihood prohibit Oklahoma from enforcing requirements like those indicating that charter schools must be ‘as equally free and open to all students as traditional public schools.’”

According to a 2021 report issued by the Oklahoma Department of Education, an estimated 80,000 children, or 11.7% of public-school students in the state, attended 30 charter schools. In his letter, O’Connor noted that the expansion of virtual charter schools had fueled that trend, and “total State Aid Allocation to charter schools in the 2020-21 school year was around $420 million.”

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa decided to develop their own proposal for a charter school because they believed it could benefit students enrolled in struggling parochial schools in rural parts of the state.

Serving Rural Areas

During the pandemic, their schools had made the most of virtual instruction, and they discovered that online platforms offered students academic choices and opportunities that had not been previously available.

“We are looking at ways to serve our Catholic population that lives in rural areas, especially where there aren’t other options,” said Lara Schuler, director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. “Here in Oklahoma, virtual programs can only be charters,” and, thus far, charter schools must be secular.

Catholic-school leaders were also aware that Oklahoma’s increasingly robust support for a variety of school-choice initiatives provided a promising environment for new proposals, like religious charter schools.

Likewise, the statutory framework governing charter schools in the state — charters are treated as private schools and are not closely controlled by the government — was equally helpful.

“Oklahoma is on the short list of states where the possibility of a religious charter is most likely,” Farley explained, and after extensive deliberations, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City decided to file an application with the virtual board because it required a lower hurdle for approval” than the state’s “brick and mortar” charter school board.

The application that will be filed by the end of January is expected to get at least an initial response from the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board by mid-February. The board could vote to approve or deny the plan or request that additional provisions be included.

Education-reform experts like the Pacific Research Center’s Izumi believe that the local Church’s application will likely receive strong consideration in a state like Oklahoma, particularly after the attorney general issued his guidance on the constitutional questions. But Izumi emphasized that applicants for religious charter schools in other states could face considerable headwinds.

“In Blue States, there could be a tougher row to hoe,” he said. “The political situation on the ground is actually going to dictate how aggressive religious organizations will be.”

Government Entanglement

However, the constitutional hurdles and political resistance to religious charter schools will be just one area of consideration for Church leaders in the U.S. who may be evaluating similar proposals.

The promise of religious charter schools must be weighed against the peril of government entanglement, and some bishops have already signaled their views on the matter.

“I am skeptical of anything to do with charter schools: It is too close a relationship with the state,” Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, the U.S. bishops’ point man on Catholic education, told the Register.

Bishop Daly did not address the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s proposal, but said he was deeply concerned about the hostile political and cultural environment that traditional parochial schools already navigate, particularly regarding issues like gender identity.

“We need our schools to be truly Catholic across the board,” he said. “Vouchers or educational savings accounts are the best option. They allow us the freedom to conduct our schools as we need to without government interference.”

No doubt, Catholic bishops, educators and school-choice activists across the country will be monitoring the progress of the archdiocese’s application, and, if it is accepted, they will also evaluate whether it fulfills the hopes of the local Church.

And Lara Schuler, for her part, is realistic about moving into uncharted waters.

“It is one thing to have ‘the right’ to operate a charter school,” said Schuler. “We may still have to weigh the tradeoffs once it is approved.”

She made clear that the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is prepared to tackle that problem when and if it arises.

“Our biggest issue here is just school choice in general: giving parents the right to choose the program that best meets the needs of their kids,” she concluded. “Whether that is a Catholic school, home schooling or a virtual program, what’s most important is parents having the choice and then having the resources to follow through on that choice.”