Oklahoma approves the nation’s first taxpayer-funded religious charter school

Earlier this month, the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 3-2 to approve the first publicly funded religious charter school in the United States. St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual Charter School, proposed by the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Diocese of Tulsa, is part of a Christian nationalist push to fund religious schools with taxpayer money, further eroding the wall separating church and state.


The state’s Charter School Board initially rejected St. Isidore’s application over concerns with logistics like the school’s governance structure and its ability to keep private and public funds separate. The archdiocese adjusted and resubmitted the application, gaining approval of three of the board’s five members: Nellie Tayloe Sanders, Scott Strawn, and Brian Bobek.

  • Sanders works as the Senior Vice President of Philanthropy for the Center for Family Love, a Catholic nonprofit for intellectually disabled adults.
  • Strawn is the Vice President for Business and Finance at Southern Nazarene University, a private Christian school, and a Lecturer in Organizational Leadership for the Abilene Christian University, another private Christian school.
  • Bobek is a new appointee who served on the State Board of Education…

Bobek was appointed just three days before the board voted on the archdiocese application. Robert Franklin, the chairman of the charter board, called into question the timing and manner of his appointment, suggesting that the board was “stacked” in favor of the school by state Republican lawmakers:

The Chairman of the Oklahoma Virtual Charter School Board said Monday’s vote to approve the Catholic Church’s request to set up America’s first religious charter school in Oklahoma was stacked last minute by the Governor’s Office who handles appointments to the board in conjunction with the State Senate Pro Tempore and the Speaker of the Oklahoma House…

Bobek was suddenly appointed to replace Board Member and former Lawton Public Schools Superintendent Barry Beauchamp, who expressed a desire to want to continue to serve and wanted to be reappointed. However, instead of a reappointment, Beauchamp was replaced by Bobek before Monday’s vote.

It just so happens that Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), who facilitated Bobek’s last-minute appointment, supports the creation of religious schools with public money:

I applaud the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board’s courage to approve the authorization for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. This is a win for religious liberty and education freedom in our great state, and I am encouraged by these efforts to give parents more options when it comes to their child’s education.

Oklahomans support religious liberty for all and support an increasingly innovative educational system that expands choice. Today, with the nation watching, our state showed that we will not stand for religious discrimination.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters, who Bobek served under at the State Board of Education, also applauded the board’s vote. “I encouraged the board to approve this monumental decision, Walters wrote on Twitter.

However, one state Republican that does not approve of the board’s vote is Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond. “The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers,” Drummond said. “It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars.” According to Chairman Franklin, AG Drummond sent a memo the day of the vote questioning Bobek’s eligibility to even cast a vote—potentially setting up an effort to invalidate his approval of St. Isidore.

On Tuesday, a memo from the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office called that vote into question. Newly-appointed board member Brian Bobek, who cast the deciding vote, may not have been eligible to vote…Chairman of the OSVSB Robert Franklin told 2 News the memo was sent via email to him and the board executive director before the meeting, but he did not see it…He said if further action is taken by the attorney general’s office, Bobek’s vote will be vacated.

“That vote would look 2-2, which means that the matter is (struck) down, which then causes the next action to happen, which I would suspect from the archdiocese to say, ‘Well, we’re gonna appeal that decision,’” Franklin said.

Whether Bobek’s vote is invalidated or not, a court challenge is sure to follow from either the archdiocese or from groups that advocate for the separation of church and state. One of those organizations, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says it is preparing legal action against the school’s approval.

It’s hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school families than the state establishing the nation’s first religious public charter school. This is a sea change for American democracy. Americans United will work with our Oklahoma and national partners to take all possible legal action to fight this decision and defend the separation of church and state that’s promised in both the Oklahoma and U.S. Constitutions.

State and federal law are clear: Charter schools are public schools that must be secular and open to all students. No public-school family should fear that their child will be required by charter schools to take theology classes or be expelled for failing to conform to religious doctrines. And the government should never force anyone to fund religious education. In a country built on the principle of separation of church and state, public schools must never be allowed to become Sunday schools.

As Chairman Franklin pointed out, the legal challenge was likely the goal of Republicans and religious leaders in the state, to get the case before the U.S. Supreme Court:

Franklin said a lobbyist for the Catholic Church told him he and the Board were being used in an effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to chip away at long-standing concepts regarding the separation of church and state.

“The Archdiocese lobbyist,” Franklin later identified as Brett Farley with the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma. “He reminded me in a conversation that this is just part of the process. You’re just part of the process. We intend for this to go to the courts, and what I’m saying is if that was the case, then we were role-players, and we should’ve played the role that was in our purview, and some stepped out of that purview.”

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has consistently ruled in favor of religious schools in recent years:

Trinity Lutheran v. Comer 2017: The Supreme Court held 7-2 that a Missouri program that denied a grant to a religious school for playground resurfacing, while providing grants to similarly situated non-religious groups, violated the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented.

Espinoza v. Montana 2020: The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a state-based scholarship program that provides public funds to allow students to attend private schools cannot discriminate against religious schools under the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution. Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan dissented.

Carson v. Makin 2022: The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Maine’s restrictions on school vouchers for religious-based private schools violated the Free Exercise Clause. Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor dissented.

The Supreme Court is currently deciding whether to hear arguments in Peltier v. Charter Day School, a case that revolves around whether charter schools are “state actors” subject to the same laws and requirements applied to public schools. Charter Day School is a nonprofit corporation in North Carolina that receives money from the state for each student that opts to attend. Female students are required to wear skirts, while male students are permitted to wear pants. The school’s founder, Baker Mitchell, explicitly said the school uniform is intended “to preserve chivalry,” based on the belief that every girl is “a fragile vessel.”

A parent, Bonnie Peltier, sued Charter Day School over the unequal treatment of male and female students. She ultimately won at the 4th Circuit and the school appealed to the Supreme Court last year.

Christian charter schools

new report by the Network for Public Education, a group that advocates for traditional public school districts, details the surge in charter schools designed to attract white conservatives with a Christian nationalist worldview. 47% of the 273 currently open charter schools that offer a classical curriculum (Western canon combined with scripture) and/or have websites designed to attract White conservative families have opened since the 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump.

Classical charter schools and “back to basics” charters designed to appeal to conservative white families deliver an additional fortune: training grounds for the next generation of conservative warriors and a handy platform for spreading far-right ideology. Their websites, often citing moral values and describing strict dress codes, clearly signal what kind of student would “fit in.” […]

Unlike the entire charter school sector, the overall student body of these charter schools is disproportionately white…[additionally,] only 17 percent of students in these charters are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunch as compared with 48 percent of all charter school students and 43 percent of the students in democratically-governed public schools.

The report covers numerous Christian charter schools, but the most influential is Hillsdale Classical Charter Schools, headquartered in Michigan with schools throughout the nation. The group spearheaded the “Hillsdale 1776 curriculum,” which is centered on Western civilization and designed to help “students acquire a mature love for America,” its organizers say. A K-12 civics and U.S. history curriculum released in 2021 extols conservative values and attacks liberal ones, while distorting the civil rights movement and downplaying the effects of slavery.

According to the Network for Public Education, 59 charter schools that are open or will soon open claim affiliation to the 1776 initiative. Hillsdale president Larry Arnn is an ally of former Trump Secretary of Education—and religious charter school advocate—Betsy DeVos and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In fact, Hillsdale has led Florida’s attack on “woke” curriculum, banning textbooks over the perceived inclusion of critical race theory.

Furthermore, Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, served as the associate director of Hillsdale’s Washington, D.C. operations in 2008-09.

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