(Editor’s Note: Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted Tuesday to reject the proposal but offered applicants a 30-day window to revise their plan).

A small state education board is considering a proposal to open a Catholic online charter school, a decision that could clear the way for spending public money on religious schooling and have national ramifications.

State and federal law prohibit religiously-affiliated public schools. Oklahoma voters in 2016 affirmed their desire to separate 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.

And Oklahoma’s attorney general cautioned the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board against approving the proposal to open the nation’s first religious public school. Catholic leaders from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Diocese of Tulsa would operate the school, named St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, after the patron saint of the internet. They have applied to become a charter school, a type of school that is publicly funded but privately operated.

The decision is in the hands of a five-person board that could soon be dissolved and includes two members who legally may be unable to vote today. Passage requires three votes and the board has until April 30 to decide on the application.

The vote could launch a legal battle all the way to the nation’s highest court. Authorizing St. Isidore would pave the way for other religious schools — Christian and non-Christian, all supported by taxpayers. Critics fear these schools will segregate and discriminate, especially against pregnant girls and LGBTQ students, when public schools’ purpose is to accept and educate all.

The board began considering the application following an opinion issued by Drummond’s predecessor, John O’Connor. Drummond, a Republican who took office in January, withdrew the official advice in February and urged the board to “use caution” when making their decision.

“Religious liberty is one of our most fundamental freedoms. It allows us to worship according to our faith, and to be free from any duty that may conflict with our faith. The opinion, as issued by my predecessor, misuses the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion,” Drummond wrote.

The University of Notre Dame Law School is assisting Oklahoma Catholic leaders with the application. Supporters of the school proposal include Gov. Kevin Stitt, who says he believes prohibitions on religious charter schools are unconstitutional. Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters also has expressed support.

School leaders say the school is needed to bring Catholic education to students beyond the metro areas, where most Catholic schools are located. They are seeking state authorization to tap into public funding. Otherwise, the school would have to charge tuition, making it difficult to compete with other online schools, Catholic leaders said.

St. Isidore proposes using a curriculum that mirrors what is used in the Catholic school system, including religious components.

Complicating the vote by the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board are concerns from a board attorney that two newly appointed board members are not authorized to vote until November. An attorney for the board is expected to discuss their eligibility to vote before the Catholic school is discussed, according to the meeting agenda.

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.

Last month, Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed an administrator at a private Christian university to the board. Scott Strawn is the chief financial officer at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany and also teaches at Abilene Christian University.

The two board members whose eligibility to vote is in question are Nellie Tayloe Sanders, appointed by Oklahoma Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, and Bill Pearson, appointed by Speaker of the House Charles McCall.

Sanders, of Kingfisher, is the 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. Her husband, former state representative Mike Sanders, was recently hired to be the first director of the Oklahoma Broadband Office.

Pearson is chairman of the Rogers County Republican Party, sits on the Oolagah Town Board and is retired from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Sanders and Pearson recently filled seats vacated in 2021 and because of the long delay, the board’s attorney says they may not be legally able to vote until Nov. 1.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is moving forward with a plan to dissolve the board and replace it with a new, larger board that oversees online and in-person charter schools. Senate Bill 516, co-authored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Adam Pugh and House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols passed the Senate last month.

The proposal eliminates the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board and creates the Statewide Charter School Board starting in July 2024. It would be a nine-member board, with the governor appointing three members, House and Senate leaders picking two members each, and the state superintendent of public instruction (or designee) and state auditor and inspector (or designee) filling the remaining two seats.

That would give the governor more influence, with three seats to select instead of one.

It would also give the state superintendent more say; currently, the superintendent is an ex-officio non-voting member of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.

The bill also gives private colleges and universities in Oklahoma the opportunity to sponsor a brick-and-mortar charter school. Technology centers and the Board of Education would no longer be able to authorize a charter school.

Under current law, a charter authorizer can be a public college or university, a public school district, a technology center, a federally recognized Indian tribe, or the state Board of Education.

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or jpalmer@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.

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