Oklahoma Legislators Seek To Exclude Religious Schools From New School Choice Program

‘Oklahoma families should not have to exchange their religious freedom for their education,’ one Democratic lawmaker said.

Oral arguments are set for Tuesday morning after the state’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board for approving a first-of-its-kind Catholic public charter school. pexels.com

As Oklahoma moves toward expanding educational opportunities for students, some Oklahomans are not happy about all the opportunities out there — particularly at religious institutions.

The 2022 re-election of Governor Stitt and the election of the new superintendent for public instruction, Ryan Walters, was viewed as a “mandate” for enacting school choice policies in the state, and proposals for universal school choice are already in motion.

In the state legislature, there are now two pending bills that propose education savings account programs for Oklahoma students — one more restrictive in student eligibility than the other. 

In their current states, both bills say that any participating private school “shall not be required to alter its creed, practices, admissions policy, or curriculum to accept payments.”

Yet Democrats are not on board, a conservative think tank at Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, has pointed out.

One Democrat in the state house, Andy Fugate, is attempting to introduce legislation that would prevent private schools from using “the state funds to provide religious instruction or religious activities.” In a statement, he said his bill “addresses the concerns of those who fear school indoctrination.”

Mr. Fugate’s bill would make optional all religious instruction and rituals for students at religious schools who pay for tuition with ESAs, as well as prevent faith-based consideration in the admissions process for schools that accept the state funds.

“Oklahoma families should not have to exchange their religious freedom for their education,” he added.

Mr. Fugate’s bill relies on a status-use distinction between public funding for religious institutions that the Supreme Court has rejected, most forcefully this past summer in Carson v. Makin

In Carson, the court ruled that Maine’s prohibition on the use of voucher funds at religious schools was tantamount to “discrimination against religion.”

Another Democratic lawmaker in Oklahoma has proposed legislation that would require schools receiving public money to operate  under “the same laws, rules, regulations, and mandates prescribed for public schools.”

The Oklahoma supreme court has ruled that voucher funds do not constitute public aid once in the hands of parents.

“When the parents and not the government are the ones determining which private school offers the best learning environment for their child, the circuit between government and religion is broken,” the justices said in 2016 in a ruling on whether vouchers for disabled students could be used at religious schools.

Meanwhile, the Sooner State made waves in December when its attorney general at the time, John O’Connor, green-lit the possibility of religious charters in an advisory opinion.

Oklahoma — like all states with charter schools — currently has a prohibition on licensing religious charter schools. Mr. O’Connor, however, wrote that such a prohibition likely violates the Constitution and should not be enforced.

The opinion has paved the way for what could be the first religious charter school in the country. The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City filed its application to operate a charter school Monday morning.

Yet Catholics in Oklahoma are not relying solely on the possibility of a Catholic charter school to advance their educational mission. The executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, Brett Farley, said the group would be “heavily involved” in lobbying for ESAs in the state.

In an email to the Sun, Mr. Farley said he and his colleagues were “more or less agnostic” as to how to achieve their goal of universal school choice in Oklahoma.

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use