Oklahoma Education Under Attack: Supreme Court Blocks First Religious Charter School, Superintendent Requires Teaching of the Bible 

Efforts to send taxpayer dollars to religious entities suffered an important blow this week as the Oklahoma Supreme Court decided that state funding for a religiously affiliated charter school violated not only the Oklahoma Constitution but also the U.S. Constitution. The Oklahoma Supreme Court, the membership of which is nominated by a state commission and appointed by the governor, ruled 6-2 that state funding for the proposed school, St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, would violate the establishment clause of the constitution. 

Despite St. Isidore’s charter being supported by both Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, and his superintendent of public instruction, Ryan Walters, the case to rescind the charter was filed by Oklahoma’s Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond. 

This case is a single, important episode within the broader school privatization war waged by the far right. Last year, school privatizers in Oklahoma passed a $7,500 per-student voucher scheme. This week’s Supreme Court ruling does not affect that voucher program. The ruling prohibited the state from directly funding religious charter schools, but because voucher money is sent to private schools indirectly via a parent, private schools are not affected by the ruling.  

St. Isidore, which would have been a completely online school with religious instruction woven through the curriculum, was supported by local Catholic leaders, who released a statement denouncing the ruling.  

The case is likely to be appealed, which could allow the Supreme Court of the United States to take it up. In recent cases – Espinoza v. Montana and Carson v. Makin – the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot exclude private religious schools from voucher programs. This ruling opened the floodgates for religious private schools to take advantage of state voucher programs that were previously only intended for non-religious private schools.  

Some supporters of St. Isidore welcome the Supreme Court challenge, which could open the floodgates for religiously affiliated charter schools to proliferate.  

In a whirlwind of a week for our neighbors to the north, Supt. Walters released a separate announcement on Thursday that all traditional public schools in the state would be directed to teach the Bible, including the Ten Commandments. This directive comes the same week as a similar move in Louisiana discussed earlier in this Hotline. Like the Louisiana case, this directive will also likely be met with a court challenge. 

In the announcement, Walters called the Bible “a necessary historical document to teach our kids about the history of this country, to have a complete understanding of Western civilization, to have an understanding for the basis of our legal system.” 

In Oklahoma, the commissioner of education is an elected official, and Walters is a Republican. 

Stacey Woolley, the president of the Tulsa Public Schools board said that she believed it would be “inappropriate” to teach excerpts of the Bible, without also including other religious texts.