The extended case for faith-based charter schools

Editor’s note: This article appeared last week on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s website.

A little-noticed event in late 2022 destabilized a pillar of contemporary American K–12 education, namely that all schools considered part of the public system must be secular.

Last December, the attorney general of Oklahoma issued an advisory opinion stating that, due to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the state could no longer prohibit faith-based groups from operating charter schools. Catholic leaders seized the opportunity and applied to do just that; the state’s virtual charter board voted down their application this week, but delayed a final decision until a revised application is submitted.

Not long after, in Arizona, one of the nation’s most successful charter operators announced it was launching an initiative to start faith-based classical schools. Though technically part of the private-school sector, these schools would be based on the organization’s charter-school model and would access public funding available via a new state Education Savings Account program that gives education dollars directly to families.

Though the efforts are distinct – the Arizona case brings faith-based education and public schooling closer, while the Oklahoma case merges them – they are, in a sense, the logical conclusion of thirty years of choice-based reform. Backers and detractors, however, see “logical conclusion” very differently.

Opponents might say they suspected choice advocates were fighting from day one to raze the wall separating church and state. Proponents might say this is an obvious, sensible consequence of American pluralism: Given the nation’s long history of faith-based nonprofits, once government engaged civil society in school operations via chartering, it was inevitable that religious groups would want to participate.

Like so much today, this issue divides observers along political lines. Indeed, the idea deeply troubles many progressives. But those on the political left might consider whether they could support faith-based charters, even if just as a pilot program.

Part of this consideration should be strictly pragmatic, as it pertains to keeping families engaged with the public school system. Opinion on public education is souring, with Americans now giving lower grades to schools both locally and nationally than before the pandemic. Today, only about one in five give the nation’s schools an A or B; only 21% of non-parents think American K–12 education is headed in the right direction.

A 2022 Gallup poll revealed that public satisfaction with K–12 schools was at its lowest level in more than 20 years.

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BY Special to NextSteps