Religious charter school test case rests with an Oklahoma board lacking enough members to meet
The nation will be watching to see how an Oklahoma board appointed by the governor and legislative leaders handles a proposed Catholic online school. If approved, the school operated by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City would swing open the door for tax-payer funded, religious instruction at other charter schools.
But first, Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board needs enough members to meet, something it hasn’t done since November.
The board is down to two people — not enough to conduct business. Lacking a quorum, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board canceled its December and January meetings.
This is the board also responsible for overseeing reforms at Epic Charter Schools, whose founders are accused of embezzling millions of taxpayer funds.
The importance of its work is underscored by the issues surrounding the Archdiocese’s application, which is expected this month, and $171 million from the state budget going to Epic this year — more than any other state public school district.
“There’s really heavy lifting in the coming months, with decisions to be made,” said Board Chairman Robert Franklin.
Franklin, associate superintendent of student affairs at Tulsa Technology Center, and Barry Beauchamp, a Lawton resident and former public school superintendent, are the only current board members.
Franklin and the agency’s director said they hope board member appointments will be announced in time for a scheduled Feb. 14 meeting. They are waiting on appointments from Gov. Kevin Stitt and state legislative leaders.
By statute, the board consists of one member from each of Oklahoma’s five congressional districts. The governor appoints the fifth district member. Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Edmond, appoints for the first and third; House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, the second and fourth.
Oklahoma Watch attempted to contact McCall and Treat through their press offices; neither responded with a comment.
There are three vacancies. In November, Brandon Tatum resigned as the board’s 5th district representative after being named Stitt’s chief of staff. A search for his replacement is ongoing, said Kate Vesper, a spokeswoman for Stitt.
Two positions have sat empty since September 2021, when board members resigned amid scrutiny that each had ties to Epic Charter Schools. Treat and McCall each are responsible for one of those appointments.
Operating with the minimum of three board members for over a year has meant if one person was late, or couldn’t attend a meeting, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board could not conduct business. All action items had to be approved unanimously.
“It was pretty onerous to manage,” Franklin said.
In the meantime, the board has overseen critical reforms at Epic Charter Schools, moving to terminate Epic’s contract in 2020 after an investigative audit showed the school violated state law and mismanaged public dollars. Ultimately, the school settled with the board and avoided closure.
Epic has an outsized impact on the state’s education budget. With nearly 28,500 students this year, it is the state’s third largest district behind Tulsa and Oklahoma City, yet takes a larger portion of the state budget because it doesn’t receive local tax dollars.
The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board is the only entity that legally can authorize statewide virtual charter schools. It oversees Epic and six other virtual charter schools, including Virtual Preparatory Academy, which is expected to begin this fall.
The Legislature previously has proposed changing that authority. A 2022 bill by Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, would have created a new 15-member board to authorize all charter schools.
In 2021, Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon, proposed eliminating the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board and folding its duties into the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability.
Both measures failed, and no similar proposals have been filed for the upcoming session. The filing deadline is Jan. 19.
The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board’s deadline for new school applications is Jan. 31, and it expects a proposal from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. Executive Director Rebecca Wilkinson was notified by Archbishop Paul Coakley that the Archdiocese planned to apply for a virtual charter school.
In his seven-page letter, Coakley argues that prohibiting the Archdiocese from establishing a virtual charter school solely because of its religion would violate the First Amendment.
“The Archdiocese is enthusiastic about sponsoring a virtual charter school to improve educational opportunities for children and families in the state,” he wrote. “Yet we cannot ignore the reality that, regrettably, the discriminatory and unlawful exclusion of religious schools remains at least formally on the books of the state’s Charter School Act.”
The Charter School Act requires a school to be nonsectarian in its programs, admissions policies, employment practices and all other operations. The law also prohibits charter schools from being affiliated with private, religious schools or religious institutions.
Wilkinson requested an attorney general’s opinion to help the agency navigate the issue. The opinion, issued Dec. 1 by unelected, lame duck Attorney General John O’Connor, advised the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board to disregard the state and federal bans on religious charter schools in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
The opinion was the last of seven issued in 2022, despite a backlog of at least 40 requests. Gentner Drummond, sworn in last week as state attorney general, defeated O’Connor in the GOP primary by about 6,000 votes.
The board has more than O’Connor’s opinion to consider. In December, the group Freedom From Religion Foundation opposed O’Connor’s opinion in a 10-page letter to the board. Attorneys for the group argue O’Connor showed bias toward protecting private entities, without concern for potential religious discrimination against public school students and taxpayers.
“We don’t want public school students and employees to be forced and coerced to engage in religious exercise, and no taxpayer should have to fund that,” said Karen Heineman, a legal fellow with Freedom From Religion Foundation. “The clear answer is to keep them separate.”
Other states are “absolutely” watching Oklahoma to see how the application is handled, Heineman said.
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.