Oklahoma’s high court to hear arguments in Catholic virtual school lawsuit

The story: All eyes will be on Oklahoma on Tuesday as the state’s highest court hears arguments about the constitutionality of what could be the nation’s first faith-based charter school. The case, which observers say will likely end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, pits top Republicans against each other and threatens to divide the national school choice movement. 

 State of play: State Attorney General Gentner Drummond sued the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board in October to stop the opening of St. Isidore of Seville, a Catholic virtual charter school approved to open in August 2024. Separately, a group of parents and faith leaders and a nonprofit education organization sued in a lower court. Drummond’s lawsuit reverses his predecessor, also a Republican, who issued an opinion stating that recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions nullified the state constitution’s ban on religiously affiliated public schools. Gov. Kevin Stitt, a longtime school choice advocate, sided with the board to back the school. Drummond filed his petition directly with the state Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear arguments at 10 a.m. CDT Tuesday. The hearing will be live streamed here 

Why it matters: Charter schools are public schools run by private organizations. Many charter school supporters believe their status as public schools requires them to be non-sectarian and comply with anti-discrimination policies. If St. Isidore is allowed to open, it would be the nation’s first religious charter school. It would also throw the doors wide open to efforts in other states to allow religious organizations to operate public schools. 

Yes, but: Catholic leaders, who are now accepting applications for next school year at St. Isidore, say it’s needed to reach students in rural areas that lack in-person Catholic schools. Most of the state’s Catholic schools are concentrated near cities. They also want to help brick-and-mortar Catholic schools by providing access to courses that schools typically can’t offer in-person.  

Charter allegiances fraying: Besides stirring controversy among state GOP leaders, the issue has divided the charter school movement.  Great Hearts Academies, a network of 40 classical charter schools in Texas and Arizona, took a position opposite the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools in a related case. Great Hearts argued that government funding does not make charter schools state actors. It urged the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the question. The high court declined.  

“By design and definition, charter schools are run by independent entities that provide an alternative to government-run education. That independence frees charter schools from bureaucratic and governmental constraints and allows them to offer innovative curricula and environments that government-run schools do not. If charter schools are deemed state actors, that innovation will be stifled,” Great Hearts’ brief said. 

 The national alliance took the opposite position: “We support preserving the original intent and legal status of public charter schools to protect the constitutional rights of the students and teachers who choose these unique public schools. Charter schools are public schools and are state actors for the purposes of protecting students’ federal constitutional rights,” the group’s recent statement said. The group added that it “vehemently” opposes the Oklahoma board’s approval of the school and pledged to work with partners and advocates to “ensure that all students who wish to attend a high-quality, public school continue to have that option.”  

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.

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