Friday, October 27, 2023

Small: Arguments against religious charter schools fall short

Arguments against religious charter schools fall short
By Jonathan Small

The Catholic Church wants to open the nation’s first religious public charter school here in Oklahoma. After reviewing the application, the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board has voted to approve creation of the online St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School.

That decision has drawn pushback from some, but opponents’ arguments are weak.

The main objection opponents put forth is that Article II, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution declares, “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion.”

The history of that provision is steeped in the anti-Catholic bigotry of the 1800s, not any desire to prevent state funding of religious instruction. That’s why public schools openly taught Protestant Christian lessons for decades despite state constitutions having similar language.

Even if that were not so, no family is forced to send their child to a religious charter school—or any charter school. Families must proactively choose to send a child to a religious charter school rather than to the local non-religious public school.

The U.S. Supreme Court and the Oklahoma Supreme Court have both ruled that parent choice severs any coercive tie between state and religion.

In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a Missouri policy barring churches from receiving state financial grants to install playground surfaces.

In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional Montana’s practice of barring families from using a tax-credit scholarship to send children to a private religious school.

The U.S. Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion in Carson v. Makin, which dealt with a Maine program providing tuition assistance to parents in rural areas lacking a secondary school.

In all three cases, the court found government could not bar an entity from receiving a state benefit simply because the entity was religious when comparable non-religious entities were eligible.

Furthermore, Oklahoma law already allows any qualified private college or university, private person, or private organization to sponsor a charter school—including religious entities.

And a state law, in place since 1993, allows public-school districts to contract with private religious schools to provide services to children with disabilities.

If parents feel St. Isidore charter school is serving their children, it will survive. If not, it will fail.

St. Isidore will provide Oklahoma parents with even greater choice and power in education. This should be celebrated.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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