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Oklahoma board OKs what would be the nation's first publicly funded religious school

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Oklahoma has approved what would be the nation's first publicly funded religious school. The online charter school would be run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa. Robby Korth, news director at KOSU in Oklahoma City, is with us now to tell us more. Good morning, Robby.

ROBBY KORTH, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Glad to have you. So religious schools can get some public funding now. How is this different?

KORTH: Well, so it really all has to do with scale. Most of the existing funding that can go to religious schools takes the form of, like, subsidies or grants or tuition vouchers. This school would be completely funded by the taxpayers, and that part is totally unprecedented.

MARTIN: And it's also my understanding that if religious schools do get some public funding, it has to be segregated from completely religious activities, raising the obvious question here about the separation of church and state. Did that come up in the conversation around the approval process here?

KORTH: Yeah. So school choice advocates argued hard that a recent Supreme Court case out of Montana could set a precedent for the Oklahoma school. The conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in that case that a publicly funded K through 12 scholarship program could apply to religious schools, and it didn't violate the Constitution. But supporters argue that that ruling should apply similarly to religious and private charter schools.

But the opponents of all this, including Oklahoma's own attorney general, who is a Republican, are arguing for separation. Essentially, they say separation of church and state means the new school shouldn't even exist. Regardless, there is sure to be a yearslong legal fight over all of this, and it could end up again in the conservative U.S. Supreme Court.

MARTIN: Does your reporting indicate whether this is intended to be a test case to see if the high court would greenlight religious public schools?

KORTH: Yes, absolutely. Catholic officials say they want to improve access to Catholic education around the state. You know, there are hundreds of small towns around Oklahoma that - they might have a parish, but they don't have a school. So families have to drive hours both ways to get a Catholic education, so it's a big deal for them. It's also a revenue generator. The state would essentially pay the tuition of all of these students to get a Catholic education, even if it's virtual. And so this was approved by the statewide virtual charter school board, and it's appointed by the governor and other GOP leaders around the state. So this was a highly political move in favor of school choice movements here in Oklahoma.

MARTIN: So the school is meant to be called St. Isidore's. When might it start operating?

KORTH: So the goal is to have it start operating in fall 2024. And the church estimates that they're going to have hundreds of students in the beginning. But that legal challenge - it's sure to come, and organizations like the ACLU have vowed to sue the state to block the school from ever enrolling students. One interesting note is that the Republican attorney general of Oklahoma - he's considered to be a more moderate Republican - says he doesn't like the school, and he actually won't be providing legal support to the state to defend it.

MARTIN: That's Robby Korth, and he's the news director at KOSU in Oklahoma City. Robby, thanks so much.

KORTH: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robby Korth joined StateImpact Oklahoma in October 2019, focusing on education reporting.