When Ember Reichgott Junge, a Democratic state senator from Minnesota, sponsored the country’s first charter school law in 1991, she envisioned a new kind of public school.
Parents, she said, were clamoring for more school choice, not unlike today. Republicans tended to be for school vouchers, which help families pay for private school, including religious education. Fellow Democrats often wanted more funding for traditional public schools.
Charter schools gained support as an alternative: Paid for with taxpayer dollars, but run independently, the schools would offer families new options, but set firmly in the sphere of public education.
“It was always public — always,” Ms. Reichgott Junge, now 69, said in an interview.
Now, three decades later, the very idea that charters are public schools is being challenged in Oklahoma, which just approved the first religious charter school in the nation.
This latest step, amid an ascendant parents’ rights movement, seems to push charters into new territory and gives ammunition to a frequent criticism — that charter schools funnel money away from traditional public schools.
In a highly contested move, an Oklahoma state board on Monday approved St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School as a charter school. The online school, aimed at rural students, would be funded by taxpayers, but include Catholic instruction.
The school’s supporters say that excluding religious groups amounts to discrimination: Why can other private organizations run charter schools, but not a church or a synagogue?
It follows a case out of North Carolina, in which a charter school argued it could require girls to wear skirts — a violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause, according to plaintiffs — because the school was less like a public school and more like a private school fulfilling a contract with the state.
Both examples test the notion of charters as strictly public schools, a shift that is facing blowback from within the charter school movement itself.
“They are violating the legislative intent, completely,” said Ms. Reichgott Junge, who helped found the National Charter Schools Founders Library, where she is collecting oral histories from early pioneers in the charter school movement, including key Republicans.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a leading voice for charters, also sees the latest effort as antithetical to the spirit of public schools. While public schools cannot discriminate, religious schools have discretion to act according to their beliefs, which can include hiring staff members of a certain faith, or discriminating against L.G.B.T.Q. students and employees.
“We did not create the charter school movement, and make all of this progress, to become more private,” said Nina Rees, the alliance’s chief executive.
Charter schools have always occupied an ambiguous, cross-political space in education, with opposition — and support — coming from both Democrats and Republicans.
Charter schools are like district schools in many ways: Their money comes from the government, their students take the same state accountability tests and they are tuition free.
But unlike district schools, they are not zoned. Students can attend regardless of their ZIP code, fulfilling a goal of the school choice movement to empower families with options.
Their teachers are also typically not unionized, which supporters say allows for more flexibility. For example, administrators can extend the school day — a benefit for student learning — or offer pay incentives for teachers, without negotiating with a union.
But today, the boundaries between public and private schools have grown more complicated as private schools increasingly receive funding from the government, part of a push led by conservatives who support parental choice in education, including religious education.
At least 19 states allow parents to pay for private school with the help of government vouchers or scholarship accounts.
“The question is, what’s the difference?” said Nicole Stelle Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame who helped advise St. Isidore’s organizers and is a prominent voice making the case for religious charter schools.
She pointed to a nearby Catholic school in South Bend, Ind., where she said many, if not all, families were most likely eligible to pay for tuition through vouchers. “Are charter schools more like St. Adalbert’s?” she asked. “Or is it more like the public school across the street?”
An answer may ultimately come from the U.S. Supreme Court, whose conservative majority has signaled support for directing taxpayer money to private religious schools. The court is now weighing whether to take up the North Carolina case. (The Oklahoma school is also expected to be legally challenged.)
Any ruling would very likely center on whether charter schools are “state actors,” akin to government representatives, or “private actors,” more like government contractors.
Despite opposition at the national level, at least some within the charter school movement believe they are more like private actors.
Great Hearts, a charter school network with more than 40 schools in Arizona and Texas, filed an amicus brief in support of the charter school in North Carolina. Great Hearts, which focuses on classical education, argued that being free from government bureaucracy allows it to experiment and offer a true alternative to district schools, a key purpose of the charter movement.
Defining charter schools as private aligns with the interests of today’s conservatives. Back in 1991, Ms. Reichgott Junge recalled, it was the teachers’ unions and the political left who sought to frame charter schools as “quasi private schools.”
But from the very beginning, she said, charter schools were conceived as a public alternative to the government sending money to private, religious schools.
“It seems like 32 years later,” she said, “we are back at the same conversation.”