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State Department of Education seeks to be party in lawsuit over St. Isidore contract

April 2023 meeting of the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board
Beth Wallis
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board meets in April, 2023.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters is aiming to get the Department of Education involved in a lawsuit filed by Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond over what would be the nation’s first publicly funded religious school.

Drummond filed the suit last month against the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board for approving a contract with the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual Charter School.

The suit alleges, among other things, the board violated the U.S. Constitution, the state constitution and the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act. Drummond says Oklahoma charter schools are public schools, so they should be treated as state actors. As such, the law prohibits state dollars from going to sectarian institutions, such as a religious school.

But the department said in its Nov. 7 motion to intervene that because it is responsible for distributing those public dollars, it should also be party to the suit. St. Isidore also filed its own motion to intervene on Nov. 6, arguing that it has an “obvious and significant interest” in the contract at issue.

In its filing, the department argues though the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board is named as the respondent, the lawsuit itself challenges the “responsibility and action — distribution of state aid — of the department.”

“In fact, there is no case or controversy regarding the distribution of state aid with the current parties in this action because state aid is the responsibility of the department to fund St. Isidore,” the motion reads.

The absence of the department being named, it argues, would mean that any ruling on the matter would only be advisory, or it would be necessary for the suit to be refiled in district court before a finder of fact to determine which parties are necessary to it.

Further, the motion says the “mere approval” of St. Isidore’s contract by the board does not by itself trigger the violation Drummond alleges.

“Therefore, the board, having no responsibility for administering state aid, cannot adequately represent the department on issues related to the lawfulness of distribution of state aid,” the motion reads.

It also argues due to the small size of the board and its staff, it lacks the resources and expertise to adequately defend itself — resources and expertise an agency like the Department of Education can access.

In a press release, Walters said the lawsuit discriminates against some Oklahomans for their faith.

“Rather than enshrine atheism as a state-sponsored religion, we are blessed that our Constitution guarantees religious liberty,” Walters writes. “I will never back down in the fight to uphold religious liberty in our state.”

Parties have until Nov. 13 to file objections to the motions by St. Isidore and the state department.

Beth reports on education topics for StateImpact Oklahoma.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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