Are they academies celebrating two Middle East-centered cultures and languages, or a madrassa and a yeshiva incognito, courtesy of your tax dollars?
Two nonsectarian schools slated to open next month are fueling a new debate over the boundaries of culture and religion and whether public educators can separate them in a curriculum that does not violate the Constitution. The debate comes at a time when the government is increasingly chipping away at the wall between church and state.
Backers of both the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, a high school, and the Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood, Fla., which will offer kindergarten through eighth-grade classes, insist they will keep religious ideology and prayer out of the classroom, but there are plenty of skeptics.
“Islam tends to be closely connected with Arab culture,” said Robert Boston, a spokesman for the Washington-based Americans United For Separation of Church and State. “Obviously [the New York] school would have to examine religion, but it must do so from an objective standpoint. In other words, teaching about religion is acceptable, but not proselytizing.”
Boston said his group was more concerned about the Florida Hebrew school than about the New York Arabic school.
“They are talking very openly about the study of Hebrew as a way of sort of initiating religion,” said Boston. “Clearly, that’s not the kind of curriculum we expected from public schools.”
Perhaps ironically, the Arabic school has more backing from the organized Jewish community. Three rabbis serve on its board, and the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, Joel Levy, has written letters in defense of its principal, Dharan Almontaser, who has been active in interfaith coalitions.
“The school’s Arabic language requirement, combined with conflict resolution and international diplomacy training, opens the possibility of creating a well-informed generation of leaders,” Levy wrote to the New York Sun. ADL is providing its World Of Difference curriculum, designed for addressing prejudice, to the school.
In Florida, however, the Jewish Federation of Broward County and the local ADL chapter have brought their concerns before the school board that has yet to approve the Ben Gamla school, which is named for a first-century rabbi who is credited with establishing public schools in ancient Israel.
“Our concern is that when you say you are going to teach Hebrew in the context of both Israeli and Jewish culture, you have to be very careful to ensure that the line crossing church and state is not blurred,” the ADL’s Florida regional director, Andrew Rosenkranz told The Sun.
The difference, says ADL National Director, Abraham Foxman, is that the Arabic school will be completely run by the New York City Department of Education, while the Hebrew school is a charter school that must be approved by local school authorities, but will be run independently with minimal outside input.
“We are not opposed to either school, but we are asking questions,” said Foxman. “In New York the school will be run by the board of education and will be subject to all kinds of restrictions. We know what the board of education does and the parameters, the responsibility and accountability. So we want to give them an opportunity to set this up and we’ll be watching.
“That’s not what’s happening in Florida,” Foxman continued. “[There], a group of like-minded individuals got together and said this is what they want to do. The questions are much more profound.”
Insisting he wasn’t drawing a comparison with the Ben Gamla school, Foxman said “What if the Nation of Islam and Farrakhan decided to set up a charter school to study Islam? We would ask serious questions.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education, Melody Meyer, said the Gibran Academy is being set up in partnership with an outside agency, New Visions in Public Schools, a privately funded agency that, according to its Web site, develops programs and policies to energize teaching and learning and to raise the level of student achievement. But the curriculum will be set up by the DOE and all teachers will be certified and members of the United Federation of Teachers, as in any other public school, she said.
The Florida charter school was spearheaded by former Florida Rep. Peter Deutsch, an ex-New Yorker who gave up his Broward seat to run for Senate in 2005. He told the New York Sun that he has met with philanthropist Michael Steinhardt to discuss opening a similar school in New York.
Meyer, the DOE spokesperson, said no application for a charter school specializing in Hebrew had been submitted by the June 1 deadline for consideration for the school year beginning in September 2008.
New York City also has public schools specializing in Russian, French, Spanish and Japanese language and culture. But only the Arabic school has prompted an outcry.
Sara Springer, a Brooklyn teacher at a public intermediate school, has founded “Stop the Madrassa,” formed a Web site and has appeared on national television in her quest to scuttle the school. Her coalition cites concerns about radical Islam and terrorism and has also bombarded the Department of Education with Freedom of Information Act requests for documents about the school’s curricula and teachers. Springer said the information has not yet been provided, with the school set to open in about a month.
She questioned why the group has an advisory board almost entirely composed of clerics when it is to be a secular school.
“There is a big difference between how the two were handled,” said Springer, referring to the New York and Florida schools. “One was public, and the other was totally secret in New York.”
Defenders of the school note that the school will teach college preparatory courses and history of the Arabic people, not Islam, and that a majority of Arab Americans are Christians. They also suggest the school can train future Arabic translators to work for intelligence agencies.
When New York State passed its law permitting charter schools in 1998, there was much speculation that religious institutions would attempt to open them. In the Jewish community that has not happened, likely because New York’s strict law prevents the formation of any school affiliated with a religious institution.
The Ben Gamla School, which was originally to be housed at a synagogue, will be run by an Orthodox rabbi, Adam Siegel, who told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that kosher meals will be served and that students will be permitted to organize their own prayer services. Faculty will be forbidden from religious instruction or organizing prayer services. An opponent, Rabbi Allan Tuffs of Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation in Hollywood, told JTA that Rabbi Siegel has “no credentials of any kind other than having run a yeshiva-style school. If you really want to have a Hebrew language program, you hire an Israeli with an advanced degree in pedagogy. It’s so disingenuous.”
Jewish education advocate Marvin Schick, an adviser to the Avi Chai Foundation, which awards grants for Jewish education projects, said he believes both the Arabic and Hebrew school will be careful to stay within constitutional bounds because they will be under close scrutiny.
“There are so many watchdogs standing over them, that should they deviate in any significant way there is going to be litigation and newspaper protests,” said Schick. “I think they are sincere about trying to focus on culture and not try to promote anything beyond that. One of the reasons why charter schools haven’t caught on so much in the day school world is because the Orthodox feel they are so diluted that there would be no great Jewish value to them and they would draw kids away from more meaningful experiences like yeshivas and day schools.”