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Catholic leaders on Tuesday made their pitch for a publicly funded charter school to the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. The board has until late April to approve or deny the proposal.

Named St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual Charter School, after the patron saint of the internet, the school is a joint effort between the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa.

The purpose, school leaders said, is to reach students outside of the state’s metro areas, where there aren’t many Catholic schools. Its curriculum would mirror that of the Catholic school system, including religious components.

If approved, it would be the first publicly-funded, religious charter school in the country.

Board Chairman Robert Franklin asked the school’s representatives why they are seeking state authorization and the public oversight that will come with it when they could open private online school.

“When we get away from the metropolitan areas and we are looking at the population and their ability to afford tuition for Catholic virtual school, that’s a real consideration,” said Lara Schuler, senior director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. “And if we’re competing against all other virtual schools, but all of the other ones are free, that’s a problem.”

Speaking against the proposal, Kenneth Upton, an attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said if approved, the school would erase fundamental safeguards ensuring students and citizens can choose their own religion.

“It would be a sea change in the law and upend Oklahoma’s education landscape,” he said.

Sherri Brown with the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee also criticized the proposal during public comment. “Do not sacrifice constitutional rights at the altar of school choice,” she urged the board.

Brown said she’s concerned about potential discrimination against LGBTQ+ students, pregnant students, and students with disabilities.

The proposed school would operate “in harmony with faith and morals, including sexual morality,” according to the application. And responding to board members’ questions about students with special needs, Schuler said they are considering outsourcing some services to private vendors.

The board’s decision will likely end up in court regardless of how they vote. Organizations both for and against the idea have indicated they are willing to file a lawsuit.

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— Jennifer Palmer

The execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. (Oklahoma Watch file)

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