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Charter schools pride themselves on not offering a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Since they’re run by private organizations, they have far more freedom over how they operate than the typical public school. Charter schools can choose the hours and days they offer instruction, shape their curriculum around specific skills, like leadership, or emphasize certain cultural values.
What they can’t do, at least for now, is promote specific religious beliefs. That’s because while charter schools are privately owned, unlike private schools they’re mostly funded by the government (rather than tuition) and are open to all students. And in the United States, publicly funded schools are legally barred from offering explicit religious instruction.
Oklahoma is hoping to change that, however. In June, a state education board approved an application to create the St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Charter School, an online Catholic school that would be the country’s first taxpayer-funded religious school. Several groups, including some of the country’s most prominent charter school advocates, have sued to block St. Isidore from opening.
Oklahoma law requires all charter schools in the state to be “nonsectarian,” and the U.S. Supreme Court established decades ago that religious instruction in public schools violates the First Amendment. But the high court’s current conservative majority has handed down a series of recent decisions granting more rights to religious groups and individuals in education, leading many on both sides of the issue to believe the justices could create a legal pathway for religious charters like St. Isidore if given the chance.
Why there’s debate
Proponents of creating religious charters argue that charter schools in general shouldn’t be considered part of the government under the law, regardless of where their funding comes from, because they are operated privately. But beyond the legal question of whether religious charters are constitutional, there is also heated debate over what their impact on American education would be.
Supporters of schools like St. Isidore, including Oklahoma’s Republican governor and state superintendent, say faith-based charters will empower parents by giving them more opportunity to choose what kind of education they want their kids to receive. They also make the case that such schools can help keep students in the public education system at a time when public school enrollment is dropping across the country. The most ardent advocates say denying church-based groups the right to operate charter schools while allowing secular organizations to do so is a form of religious discrimination.
Opponents, on the other hand, say religious charters would undermine one of America's founding principles: that government funds should not endorse any one faith over another. They also worry that religious charters will discriminate against people of other faiths and LGBTQ students in ways that would be patently illegal for public schools.
The strongest critics, though, say that efforts to create religious charters are part of a much larger effort by the Christian right to undermine the broader American public education system. They argue that these groups are using the legal ambiguities around charters to chip away at the wall that has long separated church and state in U.S. public schools.
Religious charters add a new wrinkle to the much larger fight over the concept of “school choice,” an increasingly popular movement to expand educational opportunities outside of the public school system. Along with charter schools, another key pillar of school choice is vouchers — programs that allow public funds to be used to pay for private-school tuition. Vouchers can already be used at religious schools, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling that found the money effectively comes from parents, rather than directly from the government.
St. Isidore’s administrators are aiming to welcome the school’s first class of students at the start of the 2024 school year, but that timeline is subject to the outcome of the ongoing legal challenge. The case against St. Isidore will likely need to be decided in Oklahoma’s state courts before the U.S. Supreme Court can consider whether to take up the issue.
Religious charters could help save the public school system
“Opinion on public education is souring. … Those concerned about the diaspora from traditional public education should appreciate that growing and diversifying options inside of the public system may be the best, if not only, way to respond to families’ interest in choice while preserving key elements of public schooling, like transparency, accountability, and a degree of democratic control.” — Andy Smarick, The 74
Charter schools are basically private and should have the right to operate how they please
“Clearly, a standard public school — one operated by government employees under the supervision of a political school board — cannot be a religious enterprise. But charter schools, though publicly funded, are not publicly operated. They are organized and run by private groups and individuals; their whole raison d’être is to offer education unavailable in government schools.” — Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe
Opponents of religious charters really oppose Christianity as a whole
“[Critics] are just secularists who wish to impose their secularism on religious communities. Something deeply un-American is under way in the state of Oklahoma, indeed.” — Natan Ehrenreich, National Review
The government frequently contracts with faith-based groups in other contexts
“We all the time bid out contracts for companies to provide services to the state or to the federal government. For instance, contractors who work on building your roads. Is anyone going to suggest that, just because public money is going to that entity for a job, that suddenly it becomes a state actor? That's just nonsense.” — Kimberly Strassel, Wall Street Journal
Faith-based charters would siphon resources from already struggling public schools
“If religious charter schools become a reality, they could rejuvenate religious education, particularly Catholic schools, which have been losing students for many decades. … They could lead to fewer students, and thus less funding, for public schools.” — Matt Barnum, Chartbeat
The charter school movement could be derailed if it becomes associated with religious conservatism
“It’s not a sector that people have a really clear grasp of right now. Having religious charter schools enter that sector, in my view, would fundamentally reshape people’s understanding of what a charter school is.” — Jon Valant, Brookings Institution senior fellow, to Christian Science Monitor
The benefits of public charters would realistically be available only to Christians
“Smaller poorly funded religious groups will never be able to mount their charter schools and thus never be able to partner with the government. The state will therefore be subsidizing some religions (i.e., larger and/or wealthier ones) much more than others.” — Jacques Berlinerblau, The Hill
Religious charters would mean the government would be directly funding discrimination
“Because our nation persistently defers to religion, we have given religious institutions, including parochial schools, the right to ignore anti-discrimination laws and employment protections. … In other words, when the government funds religious education, it is often underwriting the very discrimination it has banned.” — Kate Cohen, Washington Post
The end goal for supporters is to impose Christian principles on all public school students
“Charter schools are at the center of [the far right’s] strategy to destroy secular public education. … Eventually, the hope is that parents will only have two choices left for their kids: a Christian nationalist program or no school at all.” — Amanda Marcotte, Salon
Photo illustration: Juanjo Gasull for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2)