Choice Supporters to Oklahoma Backers of Catholic Charter Schools: ‘Proceed with Caution’

In search of religious freedom, those seeking faith-based charters might get the opposite: a cumbersome bureaucracy and loss of independence

By Greg Toppo | May 9, 2023
Eamonn Fitzmaurice / The 74

Catholic Church leaders in Oklahoma could within weeks get the go-ahead to create the nation’s first explicitly religious, taxpayer-supported charter school.

And while a few charter and school choice leaders are quietly supporting the proposed St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, seeing it as a watershed moment for religious freedom, others are saying, in so many words: Be careful not to drown.

While public funding would bring unprecedented growth and financial stability to such programs, it could also create a fraught path to the religious freedom they’re seeking, as the burden of complying with court orders and myriad regulations, which even autonomous charters face, could be overwhelming. 

The school and others like it will almost certainly be tied up in litigation for months or years, said Greg Richmond, superintendent of the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools. And that’ll be bad, since it will take precious autonomy away from what should be independent schools’ sole decision-making power.

Richmond said he looked the other day at the Oklahoma Virtual Charter School Board website and counted more than 150 regulations, including meeting agenda formats, residency requirements, Open Records Acts rules and more. 

“It’s odd to try to fit a religious school into that regulated charter framework,” he said. “The accountability that comes with charter schools, I think, would be a shock to many Catholic schools in terms of the quantity of measures — academically, financially, operationally.”

That said, what happens when a Catholic charter school teacher, for instance, takes to Facebook to advocate for abortion rights? Are the teacher’s free speech rights protected, as in a public school? Or can the charter school dismiss her because she’s advocating against the teachings of the church?

“It’s odd to try to fit a religious school into that regulated charter framework.”

Greg Richmond, superintendent, Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools

For their part, charter proponents fear that while the new school may be a good political fit in deep-red Oklahoma, the legal precedent it sets could both damage and perhaps even decimate the larger charter sector in coming years. “It will give opponents of charter schools yet another reason to claim charter schools are not public schools,” said Richmond, who formerly led the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “So that does represent a threat to charter schools.”

Aside from betraying charter schools’ implicit vow to welcome and educate all students, they say it could further erode charters’ tenuous public support, especially in blue states. They’ve vowed to fight what could soon be one of their own.

In the most recent development, Oklahoma’s virtual charter school board last month turned down an application from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to open the new virtual school, a move that proponents say was largely pro forma. 

But Nina Rees, president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the board’s hesitation likely stemmed from “the strong probability of breaking state law if the school is approved. Should a charter school be authorized that falls outside the scope of the law, it will certainly be challenged in court, and we will be on the side of those seeking to uphold the law and affirm the public, non-sectarian nature of charter schools.”

Public or private actors?

While the Oklahoma case plays out, both sides say the coming weeks could also set in motion one of the most consequential federal court decisions ever about the future of charter schools: The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether to take up a North Carolina case that could wreak havoc with the bedrock idea that charter schools are public schools, as they’ve maintained since the first one opened more than 30 years ago.

The case, Peltier v. Charter Day School, pits three female students against their “traditional values” school, which has required that they wear skirts. In doing so, they say, the school violated their civil rights — its founder has called female students “fragile vessels” and believes the dress code will preserve chivalry, ensuring that girls are treated “courteously and more gently than boys.”

In court filings, the school argued that even though it enjoys public funding, it is a private entity and not a “state actor,” like district schools. So the Constitution’s 14th Amendment doesn’t apply to it, the school maintained. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond last year rejected that argument, setting up a possible hearing in Washington, D.C., before a high court that has already struck down states’ so-called Blaine amendments, allowing public funds to flow to religious schools in small communities without sufficient school capacity.

“It’s not a new conversation,” said Rees. “What’s new about it is that we have a more conservative Supreme Court.”

For Rees, who served as a top official in George W. Bush’s Education Department, the truth of the matter seems clear: “As public schools, we can’t teach religion.”

They also must open their doors to anyone, both students and staff, she said. That could potentially bump up against schools that, as private operations, can openly reject candidates that don’t uphold their beliefs.

Rees and others say the path forward for funding these schools would more appropriately — and legally — be found in another recent development taking place in statehouses nationwide: taxpayer-funded education savings accounts, or ESAs, vouchers and tax credits, which in a few states offer as much money to families for private schooling as charter schools get per pupil.

“It’s not a new conversation. What’s new about it is that we have a more conservative Supreme Court.”

Nina Rees, president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

“In some respects, if you wanted to promote religious education,” Rees said, “the ESA route will get you to that end goal faster, without rules and regulations that come if you open a religious charter school.”

In January, the charter school network Great Hearts, which operates classical education schools in four states and online, said it was doing just that: It announced it was opening a pair of Christian academies in the Phoenix area. But the schools, the network said, would be private and non-profit, funded by the state’s ESA program. 

Jay Heiler, Great Hearts’ CEO, said Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts are worth about $7,000 per student, not quite enough to fund a successful private school, but enough “when supplemented with some philanthropic effort, which we’re out there pushing to try to make ends meet, partner-to-partner, with churches that have some existing classroom infrastructure.”

But Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, which represents the church on public policy issues, said that in most states, ESAs don’t typically provide anything near full per-pupil funding, leaving students a dearth of options, especially in rural areas.

While Rees’ group has vowed to oppose schools like St. Isidore and efforts to reframe charters as private actors, others aren’t so sure. 

Heiler said Great Hearts, which has operated charter schools for more than 20 years, “will continue to follow that pathway,” keeping its religious schools private. But it also filed an amicus brief in the North Carolina case, arguing that the Supreme Court should decide that charter schools “are not presumptive state actors.” Failure to do so, it said, “will wreak havoc” on education systems more broadly and innovative charters specifically. 

Held up in court ‘for a long time’

Farley said the Oklahoma virtual charter board’s rejection last month was largely routine, giving the archdiocese 30 days to revise aspects of the plan that include how they’ll provide rural broadband statewide and special education services to disabled students. He said the board also wanted to know more about how the archdiocese will address the question of whether a religious public school violates state statute.

“We’re confident we’ll be able to answer all three of those questions sufficiently, and then we’ll move on to a vote,” he said. He anticipated that approval would take place in June. 

But in interviews, he has not specified whether the new virtual school would admit LGBTQ students or hire such staff members, saying it would follow state regulations while maintaining its right to operate according to religious beliefs. Asked if gay, lesbian or transgender educators are invited to apply for employment at the school, Farley declined to comment. Like other public schools, charters are prohibited from discriminating based on religious belief, gender identity or similar factors.

He has said he believes that charter schools are non-state actors — Oklahoma’s charter framework, he said, is “very loose.”

M. Karega Rausch, president and CEO of the charter authorizers’ group, said even Oklahoma law is clear: It’s unlawful for a public school, including a charter school, to provide a sectarian education.

Whatever happens with the Oklahoma board, Rausch said, the case will be tied up in litigation “for a long time.”

If the Oklahoma board ultimately rejects the St. Isidore application, the archdiocese can appeal the decision to the state board of education.

Gov. Kevin Stitt has signaled his support for the effort, but new Attorney General Gentner Drummond has slightly complicated the process: In February, he withdrew an opinion from his predecessor that said the state board would be on solid legal ground if it approved a religious charter school. 

His letter to the board said state law is “currently unsettled” as to whether charter schools are so-called “state actors” or private school operators. Like many in the sector, he’s awaiting the decision in the North Carolina case.

‘Proceed with caution’

Kathleen Porter-Magee, superintendent of Partnership Schools, a network of 11 independent Catholic elementary schools in New York City and Cleveland, said high-performing private schools like hers would love the extra per-pupil allotment that comes with being a charter school: It costs her about $11,500 per student to keep the doors open, yet her students bring in just $800 apiece from New York state in the form of reimbursements for mandated services such as required assessments, immunizations and attendance reports. 

“How much freedom do those religious organizations have to live out their faith every day if they are technically running public charter schools?”

Kathleen Porter-Magee, superintendent, Partnership Schools

Were Partnership’s New York schools to become charters, they’d stand to bring in more than $16,000 per pupil, which the city’s charter schools typically receive, and about half of what they’d get if they were district schools. “We wouldn’t know what to do with that much money,” she said. “It would be just absolutely game-changing for us.”

But it would also complicate matters. “How much freedom do those religious organizations have to live out their faith every day if they are technically running public charter schools?” she asked.

Like many in the school choice world, she’s closely watching what happens in Oklahoma. She’s “deeply conflicted” about the case: Denying public funding to non-profits because of their religious status “feels wrong,” she said, so she supports the archdiocese’s application for charter status.

“From a constitutional standpoint, I think it is the right decision. I think it makes sense. But I just think it’s like, ‘Proceed with caution.’ ”

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