Religious charter schools are not okay, Oklahoma high court rules


The big news: In a closely watched case that could have national ramifications, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled a proposed religious charter school that the state approved last year violates the state constitution and charter school law. 

 What it means: The high court’s decision could halt the planned fall opening of the nation’s first religious charter school. The majority found that St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School was a governmental entity and state actor and therefore required to be non-sectarian. Six of the nine justices concurred with the majority, while one dissented and another partially concurred and partially dissented. Another justice recused himself.  

 It also said that Oklahoma’s approval of St. Isidore’s contract violates the state’s charter school laws, the state constitution, and the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause and ordered the state to rescind its contract with St. Isidore.  

 The ruling also stated that a trio of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions did not apply to St. Isidore’s assertion that prohibiting it from receiving public funding would conflict with federal protection of religious freedom.  

 In the court’s words: “St. Isidore cannot justify its creation by invoking free exercise rights as a religious entity. St. Isidore came into existence through its charter with the state and will function as a component of the State’s public school system. This case turns on the State’s contracted-for teaching and religious activities through a new public charter school, not the State’s exclusion of a religious entity.”  

 Case history: The statewide virtual charter school board approved St. Isidore’s application by a 3-2 vote. The decision prompted two lawsuits, one from a parents and faith leaders’ group at the lower court level, and the other from state Attorney General Gentner Drummond, who asked the state Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality. The high court’s ruling was on the attorney general’s lawsuit. The other case remains in the lower court. However, the high court’s ruling will likely render that case moot. 

Why it matters: Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed and have historically been classified as public schools. That makes them subject to federal requirements to be non-sectarian and comply with anti-discrimination policies. If St. Isidore is allowed to open, it would throw the doors wide open to efforts in other states to allow religious schools to directly receive taxpayer money. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling could tee up the case for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether charter schools are state actors. So far, the nation’s high court has declined to address conflicting lower court rulings. 

Fraying alliances: The case pitted Oklahoma’s GOP leadership against each other, with Gov. Kevin Stitt and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters supporting St. Isidore and Drummond opposing it. Drummond called the decision “a significant victory. Stitt expressed concern that the ruling sends a “troubling message” that religious groups are second-class citizens in the state educational system and that he hopes the U.S Supreme Court will consider the case.   Walters also promised additional legal action. “This ruling cannot and must not stand,” he posted on X. 

 The Oklahoma lawsuit and related cases also divided the charter school movement, with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools taking a strong stand against St. Isidore and Great Hearts Academies, a network of 40 classical charter schools in Texas and Arizona, taking the opposite position in a related case. 

 What they’re saying: The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa, which sponsored St. Isidore’s application, issued statements expressing their disappointment with the ruling and suggesting plans to appeal.  

 “The educational promise of St. Isidore Virtual Catholic School is reflected in the 200-plus applications we have received from families excited for this new learning opportunity,” wrote Laura Schuler, senior director of Catholic education for the archdiocese. “Clearly, we are disappointed in today’s ruling as it disregards the needs of many families in Oklahoma who only desire a choice in their child’s education. We will remain steadfast as we seek to right this wrong and to join Oklahoma’s great diversity of charter schools serving all families in the state.”  

 St. Isidore principal Misty G. Smith called the ruling “a setback” for the state’s K12 students and pledged not to give up hope “that court’s error may be corrected.” 

 Eric Paisner, acting CEO for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, called the decision “a resounding victory.” 

 “All charter schools are public schools. The National Alliance firmly believes charter schools, like all other public schools, may not be religious institutions. We insist every charter school student must be given the same federal and state civil rights and constitutional protections as their district school peers. The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision reassures all Oklahoma families that their students’ constitutional rights are not sacrificed when they choose to attend a public charter school.” 

 Shawn Peterson, president of the Catholic Education Partnership, a national nonprofit organization advocating for school choice, didn’t take a position on the ruling but said he expects an appeal. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of St. Isidore could have implications for the 46 states, the District of Columbia Puerto Rico and Guam, which all have charter school laws.  

“This case will be one of the more interesting school choice cases to watch as there is a great deal at stake, including some big policy questions and what actions state legislatures might take depending on the outcome of the ruling,” he said.  

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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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