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Oklahoma Catholic Church hopes to open first publicly funded religious charter school

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City wants to create a publicly funded religious charter school, and that's a big deal because it would be the nation's first. But opponents say it would open the door to discriminatory policies and unconstitutional religious education. StateImpact Oklahoma's Beth Wallis explains the cases for and against the school.

BETH WALLIS, BYLINE: Tomorrow, Oklahoma's Statewide Virtual Charter School Board is likely to vote on an application from St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic Charter School to become an online public charter school. In Oklahoma, charter schools are publicly funded like traditional public schools and don't require teachers to be certified. The plan calls to offer online courses for kindergarten through 12th grade. Proponents say the program would help rural Catholic families who live far away from brick-and-mortar schools to have access to Catholic education. But whatever the board decides, it's likely to prompt years of litigation, and that follows a stream of lawsuits that have led to this moment. This is Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond.

GENTNER DRUMMOND: If the application is accepted, it will almost certainly be challenged by public school groups that don't believe that state taxpayer dollars should go to fund sectarian education.

WALLIS: Ultimately, the question at the heart of the controversy is - are charter schools subject to the same regulations as traditional public schools? Drummond says they should be. He threw out the previous attorney general's opinion that was in support of St. Isidore's application.

DRUMMOND: There are a couple of cases that have opined that charter schools are public schools using public funds. And then when I look at Oklahoma's Constitution - our public school system shall be open to all children and be free from sectarian control.

WALLIS: Brett Farley is the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma. He says three central Supreme Court cases in the last decade have paved the way for a new frontier of publicly funded religious schools.

BRETT FARLEY: In our opinion, they all seem to be pointing in one direction, and that is that - as they've said and as they've said now three times - if a state has a program generally available that is state-funded, then they cannot prohibit a religious institution from participating in that program simply because they're religious.

WALLIS: But opponents worry this kind of religious participation could lead to discrimination. In its application, the school claims an exemption to regulations inconsistent with the Catholic Church. Sherri Brown is the legislative chair of the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee, a group that seeks to bolster public schools and promote equitable access for all students. And at February's Statewide Virtual Charter School Board meeting, Brown highlighted that issue of equitable access.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHERRI BROWN: Will LGBTQ+ students or their families be excluded? Will students who become pregnant be expelled? Do not sacrifice constitutional rights at the altar of school choice.

WALLIS: Asked about potential discrimination, Farley says the school isn't speaking to hypotheticals, and they've been too focused on the application process to start in on admissions policies. But he says state statute is clear, the school intends to operate within the law and that Supreme Court precedents back up their position.

FARLEY: I'm not going to address the specifics of any particular case because A, we don't have those cases in front of us and B, those are very individualized cases. And so we will address those at that time.

WALLIS: Oklahoma's Virtual Charter School Board meets tomorrow afternoon. And no matter how the vote goes, lawsuits are likely on the way.

For NPR News in Tulsa, I'm Beth Wallis.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH'S "STILL TRILL (FEAT. METHOD MAN AND GRAFH)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Beth Wallis