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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Is a religious charter school kosher?

Oklahoma is considering approval of the first religious charter school in the U.S., reports Andrea Eger in Tulsa World. A state board is expected to rule in March.

St. Isadore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, named for the patron saint of the internet, hopes to provide online instruction and curriculum in small towns that don't have enough students for a traditional school. In addition, plans calls for offering online courses to existing schools in hard-to-staff subjects such as foreign languages, advanced math, technology and other electives, writes Eger.

Isidore wrote a 7th-century encyclopedia of knowledge.

“We think we can be a fully Catholic school — Catholic in every way: Catholic in teaching, Catholic in employment — and take public funding,” said Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma law requires charter schools to be “nonsectarian,” notes Mark Walsh in Education Week. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled recently that state-funded education programs open to secular private schools can't discriminate against faith-based schools.

In an opinion published in December 2022, the Oklahoma attorney general's office concluded that the state's charter law discriminates against religious schools, violating the First Amendment, and should not be enforced.

Whether charter schools are "state actors" or private is the key issue, says Nicole Stelle Garnett, an associate dean and professor at University of Notre Dame Law School, who consulted on the St. Isidore application. "The answer may vary among the more than 40 states that allow charter schools based on differences in state charter school laws and other case law."

Republican-led states are passing or considering "sweeping new vouchers laws that would plet every family use public funds to pay for private school," write Laura Meckler and Hannah Natanson in the Washington Post.

Last year, Arizona created what activists consider a model program: Every child who forgoes public school for private programs, including religious schools, is eligible for a taxpayer-funded payment worth $7,000 — almost as much as the state sends to public schools per student.
In January, Iowa and Utah followed suit, creating their own universal programs. GOP governors in Arkansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Oklahoma have listed these programs among their top priorities for 2023.

In the past, voucher-like scholarships were limited in scope. Only parents of children with disabilities or very low-income families could participate. The new programs are open to nearly everyone. or "Education savings accounts" (ESAs) can be used to fund homeschooling.

In the past, suburban parents, satisfied with their children's schools, saw no need to fund alternatives, said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. But that changed during the pandemic.

The political strategy has shifted from "We have to give vouchers to kids trapped in lousy schools," to "All kinds of families should have options,” Hess said. That makes it easier to build coalitions.

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