Oklahoma Families in Limbo as Courts Decide on Religious Charter”

Enrollments are now open for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, the first religious charter school in the nation, a virtual K-12 institution in Oklahoma named after the patron saint of the internet. Registration drive and staff hiring for the August start are at full throttle.

Principal Misty Smith extends an invitation to passionate educators who are supportive of the faith and eager to teach at St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. In a video addressing potential instructors, Smith expresses keen interest.

Amid ongoing legal battles that could stretch out further, the fate of the school remains uncertain, leaving the question of whether the taxpayer will bear the costs come fall. Discussions are ongoing among the church leaders concerning the potential launch of the online program as a private entity in case state funding is halted under court order, as noted by Brett Farley, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma.

A contentious charter, endorsed a year ago by a state board, faces allegations of contravening state and federal laws that prohibit government funding of religious institutions. While the school emphasizes education through a Catholic perspective, pending court rulings have left families in a state of uncertainty. Out of the 218 applications received by the school thus far, 160 applicants have enrolled, while 35 are deliberating acceptance into the inaugural class.

Chloe, the daughter of Joy Stevens who secured a lottery spot, has her educational plans hanging in the balance. As a contingency measure, Stevens has registered Chloe at the Velma-Alma public schools near their farm south of Oklahoma City. The cost implications of private schooling are a concern for the family.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court is yet to pronounce judgment on the lawsuit filed by Attorney General Gentner Drummond, heard in April. The court’s decision may not be forthcoming before the scheduled distribution of state funds in August, estimated at $1.2 million as approved by the virtual charter school board.

In a separate case, a coalition of parents and advocates are seeking an injunction in an Oklahoma County district court on July 24 to block the school’s operational funding. They assert that the school would discriminate against LGBTQ students, those with disabilities, and families and staff not adhering to Catholic doctrine.

The opposition hailed a recent ruling permitting their lawsuit to proceed. Judge Richard Ogden dismissed most defense claims aimed at quashing the case, with key figures including Republican state Superintendent Ryan Walters highlighting the school’s commitment to non-discrimination.

A debatable issue, however, revolves around the school’s reliance on public funds, with arguments urging that St. Isidore functions as a private entity irrespective of charter status. Parents retain the choice to enroll their children without any religious obligations.

‘Navigating Religious Instruction in Public Schools’

State regulations now allow public school students in Oklahoma to integrate religious instruction into their schedules to align with parental desires, as long as core classes are not compromised. Governor Kevin Stitt recently endorsed a law permitting districts to offer elective credits for up to three religious classes weekly.

Lifewise Academy, a Christian nonprofit based in Ohio, championed the legislative reform in Oklahoma to impart “evangelical Bible education” to public schools. The organization is set to introduce its services in 23 states this autumn, attracting mixed responses on the educational disruption such programs could pose.

In response to the Satanist Temple’s proposed establishment of the Hellion Academy, Superintendent Ryan Walters emphasized a stance rejecting their engagement with Oklahoma’s school system. Walters questioned the temple’s religious status despite the IRS granting them tax-exempt recognition similar to traditional churches.

Voices advocating for religious diversity in public institutions view the recent decisions as potential gateways for non-Christian entities to access educational spaces, in line with Attorney General Drummond’s prior warnings regarding expanding religious liberties.

Preparations for the St. Isidore opening are underway, ensuring provisions are in place for students’ and staff’s educational experiences. Teacher recruitment remains active, with vacancies still available for a fourth-grade instructor and high school math, physics, and chemistry teachers among other positions.

Chloe Steven’s transition to St. Isidore from public schooling prompts concerns about the academic rigor awaiting her. Fears of falling behind academically linger as she prepares for the new challenge.

Chloe Stevens, set to join high school this fall, features among the 200 prospective students enrolling in the inaugural cohort of St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. (Courtesy of Joy Stevens)

Despite ongoing legal battles, calls for the school’s temporary closure until court proceedings conclude have surfaced. The uncertainties and legal complexities accompanying the school’s debut have prompted feedback voicing caution against initiating operations amidst unresolved disputes.

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