The emergence of Hebrew charter schools — publicly funded schools that teach Hebrew language and aspects of Jewish culture — has been a controversial development in recent years. Required by law to be open to all regardless of religion or ethnicity, and prohibited from promoting religion, these tuition-free schools nonetheless have drawn scrutiny from church-state watchdogs, as well as Jewish leaders concerned they could draw students away from Jewish day schools.
Plus, with a variety of organizers, sponsors and agendas, not all of whom agree on the definition of “Hebrew charter school,” the field is diverse. Here are some of the latest developments from this fast-moving field.
Hatikvah International Academy Charter School, a Hebrew charter school in East Brunswick, N.J., is midway through its second year of operation, with enrollment at 152 students this year and a wait list for next year. However, the school, which like all charter schools is tuition-free, publicly funded, open to all regardless of religion or ethnicity, and legally prohibited from promoting religion continues to face legal challenges.
One of two Hebrew charter schools nationally to have opened with assistance from the New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center (the other is Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn), Hatikvah has filed a New Jersey Public Record request to find out how much the East Brunswick school board has spent attempting to close the charter school.
While the New Jersey Supreme Court Appellate Division and the state’s education commissioners have ruled in the charter school’s favor, the school board has announced it plans to continue to appeal. “Voters deserve to know how much in taxpayer money is being wasted on legal fees for baseless case,” says a press release issued by the HCSC. The attorney for the East Brunswick school board did not respond to a Jewish Week request for comment.
In nearby Highland Park, New Brunswick and Edison, N.J., another would-be Hebrew charter school — this one without the backing of the HCSC — is spurring grass-roots opposition. Tikun Olam, which would be a high school, won a $600,000 federal start-up grant this fall, even as its charter applications to the state have been rejected four times (the latest rejection was announced last Friday). Inaccurate material in its applications, including false claims of support from various public officials, have drawn public scrutiny, including a column earlier this month in The New York Times. HCSC’s executive director, Aaron Listhaus, recently circulated an e-mail to its network of planning groups and supporters clarifying that the center “is not involved with Tikun Olam, we do not support their application, and we share many of the concerns that the Times and others have raised about it.”
The e-mail acknowledges that HCSC in 2009 provided a “small development grant” to Tikun Olam’s planning group, but “we completely ended our association with Tikun Olam the next year, when the HCSC board decided to focus on supporting K-8 programs.”
“Since then, we have become convinced that there are serious issues regarding the credibility and methods of this applicant. Whether formally or informally, HCSC only supports planning groups that are fully committed to transparency and to engaging and reflecting the diversity of their surrounding community.”
Another school that HCSC initially assisted but then ended the association is Albert Einstein Academy, a charter middle/high school in Santa Clarita, Calif. That school, which opened in August 2010, last week got its charter renewed for another five years. Founded by Rabbi Mark Blazer, the 200-student school does not require Hebrew, but offers it along with Chinese, Spanish and Aramaic. The Hart School district approved the renewal in a 5-0 vote. However, Rabbi Blazer’s efforts to obtain approval for Hebrew charter elementary schools in the Los Angeles area have failed so far.
The HCSC, which initially had also advised Einstein’s Rabbi Blazer and pledged a start-up grant, cut off relations when the Santa Clarita school decided not to require Hebrew.
HCSC recently held its third annual “institute” in New York for Hebrew charter school planning groups from seven localities, including Manhattan’s Harlem, San Diego, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. Some of the participants are applying for charters to open schools in 2012, while others are applying to open ones in 2013.
Florida’s 4-year-old Ben Gamla network of Hebrew charter schools, which has no relationship to HCSC, has announced it will open two new schools in 2012. One will be located on the campus of Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation in Boca Raton, while the other, Ben Gamla’s first foray into the western part of the state, will be in Tampa. Founded by former Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), Ben Gamla’s five schools, including a high school that opened this fall, currently enroll 1,600 students.
Shalom Academy Charter School, an Englewood, N.J., Hebrew charter school is in the midst of enrollment for fall 2012. The yet-to-open school had its charter approved a year ago and initially planned to open in fall 2011. Last year, many Jewish day school families applied to the school, seeing it as an affordable alternative; however, many soured on the school after last year’s parents and teachers learned only mid-summer that the school’s opening would be delayed a year, and after myriad complaints about founder Raphael Bachrach’s failure to share information.