Fierce Battles Rage Over What Could Have Been Oklahoma’s First Religious Charter School

Isabelle Qi '25

The Catholic Church of Oklahoma wanted to create and run what could have become America’s first religious charter school. Contextually, charter schools are a type of public school funded by taxpayer dollars but managed independently [1]. The stage has been set for a number of years about the“high-profile” constitutional and legal battle on whether or not taxpayer money should be used to fund religious schools (the modern manifestation of separation between church and state).

The proposal laid out for the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board (a charter school managed by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa religious branches, tentatively known as the St. Isidore Catholic Virtual School.): Offering online classes for students from kindergarten through 12th grade [2] in order to provide Catholic families in rural areas with access to Catholic education, something they wouldn’t normally be able to experience [2]. Although certain existing charter schools may be affiliated with religious organizations, this instance would be the first ever school in America to run as an openly, explicitly religious educational institution, with religious instruction incorporated into the curriculum [1]. 

Supporters of the school hoped that with a conservative-dominated Supreme Court, the St. Isidore Catholic Virtual School could fuel a larger movement across the country to diminish boundaries between church and state, allocating more government money towards funding religious schools [1]. This would call into question the founding values of the United States, especially the practice of secularism. 

Unfortunately for the school and fortunately for the legacy of the Constitution, the proposal was rejected.

The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board’s five-member panel, nominated and appointed by Republican state leaders, debated fiercely over whether or not to approve the school’s application. Prior to delivering their decision, board members knew that no matter their decision, it would have a significant and resounding legal weight on similar affairs and might even be seen as setting precedent.

The proposal itself received widespread backlash from various groups, including public school advocates as well as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, Gentner Drummond [2]. Additionally,  Groups on either side fought intensely to push through. On the other hand, Ryan Walters, the elected state superintendent at the meeting, labeled opponents of the proposal as “radical leftists” who despised the Catholic Church [1]. Walters emphasized the importance of establishing Oklahoma as an example of religious freedom and another option for schoolchildren, ignoring the blatant lack of application of the proposal to the Free Exercise clause in the Constitution [1]. Robert Franklin, the board chairman, objected to Walters’ characterization of the proposal’s opponents. “No disrespect to you [Walters], but I didn’t hear a radical position,” Franklin rebutted in a public comment section of the meeting . Opponents of the proposal present at the meeting included local religious leaders and a founder of a coalition supporting rural schools [1].

The ultimate decision? A resounding 5-0 vote – in favor of neither accepting nor denying the application, but seeking out more information instead. The board asked the school’s organizers to include a thorough explanation of why a religious charter school would be constitutional [1]. The board will likely take another vote on the matter again later in spring. 


[1] Oklahoma Set to Consider U.S.’s First Religious Charter School – The New York Times


[2] Oklahoma board rejects initial proposal for Catholic charter school