Some 3.7 million American children are currently enrolled in charter schools, which are independently run but state-funded. According to a recent Stanford University study, pupils at these schools consistently outperform those at regular public schools. Last week, officials in Oklahoma approved a charter school that would be administered by the local Catholic diocese and include religious instruction in its curriculum. Granting approval is a clear violation of state regulations—in fact, no state currently allows religious charter schools—but supporters are hoping to challenge the law in the Supreme Court if necessary. Jeff Jacoby writes:
In its 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, a landmark that has been called the most important education decision since Brown v. Board of Education, the high court ruled that low-income parents in Ohio could use state tuition-aid vouchers to enroll their children in religious schools. . . . Writing for the court in a case out of Montana in 2020, Chief Justice John Roberts expressed the principle clearly: “A state need not subsidize private education,” he wrote. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
Though the court hasn’t yet ruled in a case involving charter schools, it’s difficult to see why the same logic wouldn’t apply. Clearly, a standard public school—one operated by government employees under the supervision of a political school board—cannot be a religious enterprise. But charter schools, though publicly funded, are not publicly operated. They are organized and run by private groups and individuals; their whole raison d’être is to offer education unavailable in government schools. States provide money and enforce basic legal standards, but otherwise charter schools are autonomous. That’s a key reason for their popularity.
Many critical public services—from healthcare and homeless shelters to foster care and food pantries—are supplied by faith-based groups that receive government subsidies. To mention one especially striking example, more than 70 percent of all refugee resettlement in the United States is undertaken by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organizations. Though the Constitution prohibits the government from engaging in the “establishment of religion,” it raises no bar to contracting with religious providers to help fulfill important government obligations.
A church-run charter school is in exactly the same category. Oklahoma is right to say so, and other states should follow its lead.