Can Oklahoma’s Saint Isidore of Seville Virtual School Help Correct a One-Hundred-Eighty-Year-Old Injustice?

Can Oklahoma’s Saint Isidore of Seville Virtual School Help Correct a One-Hundred-Eighty-Year-Old Injustice?
Can Oklahoma’s Saint Isidore of Seville Virtual School Help Correct a One-Hundred-Eighty-Year-Old Injustice?

This coming school year, we may see a unique institution opening in Oklahoma. Saint Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School is slated to admit its first students. Barring court interference, the school will be a charter school, meaning its funding will come from the state.

Virtual Charter Schools

Two terms need to be clarified. First, a “virtual” school is one in which most instruction is done by computer. The school provides the computer, and students work from home using the machine and other necessary materials.

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Secondly, a charter school is funded by the government but operated by an organization other than the local public school district. The organization writes a proposed “charter,” which must be approved by the state. After approval, the school enrolls students. The local school systems must then forward each enrolled child’s “share” of taxpayer-provided funds to the charter school.

That transfer of funds makes charter schools controversial. School systems resist giving up their funds. Teachers’ unions also see charter schools as threatening their monopoly because they usually operate outside the district’s union contract.

Educationists and educrats distrust charter schools. However, the idea of a Catholic charter school makes them apoplectic.

Applying Catholic Standards

The new school’s website makes it clear that St. Isidore School intends to be Catholic.

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“St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School will be…steeped in the richness of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition with an integrated curriculum where goodness, truth, and beauty are infused throughout all subjects. Curriculum resources will be chosen in all subjects to enlighten and strengthen the intellectual capacity of children to seek Truth through faith and reason.”

The school promises, “Our program, while uniquely Catholic, will meet or exceed the secular requirements of the state charter agreement as well as graduation requirements for high school students.”

A Common Fallacy, Separation of Church and State

The most controversial aspect of the new school is that a religious institution will have access to “public funds.”

On October 10, 2023, the state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, reported, “The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 3-2 on Monday to approve a charter contract for St. Isidore of Seville…. Only a court order could prevent the school from opening.”

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While that article did not contain any positive opinions about the new school, it did make room for the expected backlash from “Americans United for Separation of Church and State.”

“The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board is continuing on a misguided path to create the nation’s first religious public charter school in clear violation of Oklahoma law and the state’s promise of church-state separation and public schools that are open to all.”

The New York Times added its liberal voice to the controversy.

“The decision sets the stage for a high-profile legal fight over the barrier between church and state in education, at a time when other aspects of public education are being challenged. Seizing on debates over parents’ rights, Republican lawmakers, including in Oklahoma, have increasingly pushed for alternatives to public schools, such as vouchers and tax credits, which offer subsidies to parents to help pay for private tuition, often at religious schools.”

A Weak Argument Behind a Massive Façade

On April 2, 2024, The Oklahoma Supreme Court heard arguments on the issue. Its timetable for a decision is uncertain.

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Those who mouth the platitudes of “separation of Church and state” want everyone to think that the Court’s decision will be obvious. From their perspective, this is a purely political situation. The current governor, a Republican, named the majority of members of Oklahoma’s board, and they are doing something that the governor supports. Indeed, the liberals think the Court will set aside this erroneous decision.

However, the leftist view is weaker than it appears. This issue is very old and keeps resurfacing, often with similar arguments. Second, three recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions may point to a trend recognizing the justice of those old contentions.

Bishop John Hughes Fought the Same Battle in 1840

When the public school system was new, in the 1830s and 1840s, the idea of separation of Church and State was radical and uncommon. Protestants dominated most school boards. New York’s “Public School Society” saw schools as a way to create a new society. Turning poor immigrant Catholic children into Protestant adults fit their plans well.

School days often began with Bible readings, always from the King James Version. History books presented Catholicism as superstitious and Martin Luther as a “daring innovator.” The Village School Geography, a standard textbook, reported that “a part of Italy is governed by the Pope, who makes laws for the people as he pleases…. Though often wicked, the Catholics say he cannot do wrong.”

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In August 1840, Bishop (later Archbishop) John Hughes defended the Catholic children of New York from such abuse. He wrote a pamphlet, which was quoted extensively by Henry Athanasius Brann in his 1892 biography of Bishop Hughes. His argument followed two lines. First, no school should try to deprive children of their parents’ faith.

“[T]here are in the class-books of those schools false (as we believe) historical statements respecting the men and things of past times, calculated to fill the minds of our children with errors of fact, and at the same time to excite in them prejudice against the religion of their parents and guardians…. [T]hat such books should be put into the hands of our own children…was in our opinion unjust, unnatural, and at all events to us intolerable.”

Forced to Pay for Heresy

The second part of Bishop Hughes’ argument was that the state forced Catholic taxpayers to contribute to this massive injustice.

“We [Catholics] are supposed to be from one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand in the state. And although most of us are poor, still the poorest man among us is obliged to pay taxes, from the sweat of his brow, in the rent of his room or little tenement. Is it not, then, unjust and hard that such a man cannot have the benefit of education for his child without sacrificing the rights of his religion and conscience? He sends his child to a school, under the protection of the Church… but he has to support the public school also….”

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John Hughes saw only one solution—that tax dollars support Catholic children being taught in Catholic schools. The trustees of the Public School Society voted down that proposal by fifteen votes to one.

Even though Hughes was defeated, the inherent justice in his argument stands. Over the years, many attempts have been made to bring justice to this obviously inequitable situation. All have been defeated by those bearing the false banner of “separation of Church and state.”

Recent Supreme Court Decisions Offer Hope

However, there are signs that the U.S. Supreme Court may be ready to help religious parents educate their children. Three recent cases indicate significant movement on the part of the High Court. In 2017, the Court found that a Lutheran preschool could not be excluded from a government fund to provide playground equipment to other preschools. Three years later, the Court found that Montana could not exclude religious schools from a program that extended tax credits to organizations that donated toward scholarships that help students attend private, nonsectarian schools. Even more on-point was a 2022 decision that allowed families in rural areas of Maine without public high schools to choose religious schools, with tuition paid by the state.

These decisions applied to certain very unusual situations. However, in all three cases, the Supreme Court ordered that the schools could not be denied “public moneys” to which they were otherwise entitled simply because they are operated on a religious basis.

Saint Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School has jumped through the hoops set up by the State of Oklahoma. It has dotted all of the i’s and crossed all of the t’s. If they are excluded, the only reason will be that they intend to practice Catholicism and train children accordingly. Hopefully, the Courts will, at long last, acknowledge the justice of the position that Bishop Hughes laid out in 1840.

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