A state board voted to reject a proposed Catholic online charter school on Tuesday. But it’s not the final outcome. School leaders have a new 30-day window to revise their proposal and try again.
During a two-hour meeting, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board raised numerous concerns with the application for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. They praised other aspects of the proposals. The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Diocese of Tulsa are requesting state sponsorship for the school in order to receive public funding.
Here are five things to know about Tuesday’s decision.
The School Would Be Public
Catholic leaders have proposed opening in the fall of 2024 with an estimated 500 students in grades kindergarten through 12th. The school would be designed for students who want a Catholic education but live outside the metro areas without access to a brick-and-mortar Catholic school.
St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, named after the patron saint of the internet, would use a curriculum that mirrors what is used in private Catholic schools, including religious components.
If approved, it would be the first religious public school in the country.
Religious Leaders Spoke Out Against It
Gov. Kevin Stitt and Superintendent Ryan Walters both support the proposal. But several religious leaders and citizens spoke out against it on Tuesday.
“I am here today as an unbridled enthusiast for public education….I am also an unbridled enthusiast for the separation of church and state,” said Rev. Lori Walke, senior minister at Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City.
She urged the board to vote no because approving the school would violate religious freedom.
Decision Rests With Five People
The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board has five appointed members and is the only entity able to authorize online schools in Oklahoma.
Robert Franklin, associate superintendent of student affairs at the Tulsa Technology Center, and Barry Beauchamp, a former superintendent of Lawton Public Schools, are the board’s longest serving members.
Three members have been appointed this year: Scott Strawn, an administrator at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany; Nellie Tayloe Sanders, senior vice president of philanthropy at the Center of Family Love, a residential facility for people with disabilities in Okarche supported through an endowment by the Catholic Foundation of Oklahoma; and Bill Pearson, chairman of the Rogers County Republican Party and Oolagah Town Board member.
Six Concerns, Plus One Big One
Board members outlined six concerns with the quality of the application, including the school’s inadequate plan to accommodate students with disabilities, board governance, and their method and teaching practices, which board members said were not customized enough for online learning.
There’s another major concern board members are evaluating: prohibitions in state and federal law against religiously affiliated public schools.
Oklahoma voters in 2016 affirmed their desire to keep church and state separate, defeating a state question to overturn the Blaine amendment, which was written into the state constitution at statehood to block state funding for Catholic schools.
The board originally accepted the Archdiocese’s application based on an opinion by former Attorney General John O’Connor, who argued the school should be considered in light of several recent U.S. Supreme Court cases. That opinion was withdrawn by the new Attorney General Gentner Drummond, a Republican who took office in January. He urged the board to use caution when making their decision.
Board members received additional legal advice at the meeting Tuesday.
Franklin said he thinks it’s dangerous for the board to take an action that isn’t constitutionally aligned. “The constitution is a big, high hurdle,” he said.
School Leaders Can Try Again
The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board will outline the problems it has with the application in writing, giving Catholic leaders 30 days to address the issues and come back to the board. Then the board is likely to vote again.
If the board ultimately rejects the application, Catholic leaders have said they will sue. The University of Notre Dame Law School is assisting Oklahoma Catholic leaders with the application.
If the board approves the application, another group, such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is likely to sue.
Some board members said they have concerns about being sued in their personal capacity. The board’s legal counsel warned them in the meeting that if they vote in a way that knowingly violates the state constitution, they may not have legal representation from the attorney general.
Superintendent Walters, who attended Tuesday’s meeting as a nonvoting member of the board, vowed to support in any way necessary. “We can help from the agency. Find them legal counsel if necessary,” Walters said.