A Hebrew-English public school that opened last week in Hollywood, Fla., is leading to fears among some Jewish day school administrators nationwide that it could drain students from their institutions.
The school also came under withering criticism this week from those who suggested it was deceptive and questioned its motives, saying it might confuse parents into believing it was offering a Jewish education for free.
The school’s founder, former Rep. Peter Deutsch, said he is hoping to open 100 such schools — including one in New York in September 2009. He said he is conferring with philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who said he has spent nearly $2 million over the past 10 years trying to establish what he calls a “secular Jewish” private school here.
Steinhardt said his efforts have been for naught but that he had never considered Deutsch’s approach, which is the use of a charter school that receives public money but is subject to less oversight.
Both men met two weeks ago to discuss their mutual projects. Steinhardt said Deutsch’s initiative has caused him to revive his project, and they both said they might work together.
“He is coming at this in a totally different way,” said Deutsch. “But the net result … in Manhattan would be very similar. I think there is a real collaborative opportunity.”
Steinhardt said his vision is of a “secular Jewish day school that would … teach the Hebrew language and a variety of other subjects that are secular but also of clear interest to Jews, such as Jewish history.
“The bulk of Jews today would probably consider themselves secular, and that easily fits under the rubric of a charter school,” Steinhardt said. “It would create problems of church and state, but it would ultimately survive the problems.”
Deutsch insisted that the competition from charter schools “is going to make [Jewish day schools] stronger and better; they are going to have to work harder.”
Elaine Cohen, associate director of the Department of Education at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, shared that view.
“We can’t put our heads in the sand and think we are not threatened, but we have to turn it into an opportunity,” she said. “The impact of this may help the Jewish day schools crystallize their religious mission. They would have to make a compelling case for it as a way of differentiating themselves” from the charter schools.
Deutsch said there has already been competition with the Ben Gamla school. He said that the David Posnack Hebrew School in Plantation, Fla., which he said “had a monopoly” on the teaching of Hebrew in Broward County, fought back and was able to keep some students.
“We actually lost some students to them after they aggressively tried to keep them by offering scholarship money to stay in their school,” Deutsch said. “That is a good thing. I see it as a positive.”
Officials of the Posnack school did not return calls seeking comment.
Cohen said her movement’s Solomon Schechter Day Schools as well as community day schools throughout the country may “lose some children whose parents are on the periphery and who would look for an affordable alternative to a day school. This presents another challenge for the day schools — to be able to offer sufficient tuition assistance.”
But Marc Kramer, executive director of Ravsak: The Jewish Community Day School Network, said the Florida school, officially called the Ben Gamla Charter School, is misleading the Jewish community.
“They are trying to be an apple and an orange at the same time,” he charged. “A family that sends their children there thinking they will get a Jewish education will go there and not get one. And that is bad for the Jewish people.”
Kramer, whose organization represents 120 Jewish community day schools, also questioned the impetus behind such schools.
“No one had to start a charter school to get Hebrew taught in a public school,” he said. “We have lots of public schools here where Hebrew is taught as a language, including Forest Hills High School, Stuyvesant High School and Townsend Harris High School. If, in fact, there is an under-the-counter goal of having the public provide parochial education, that is exceptionally bad for the Jewish people — it’s deception that is un-American, un-Jewish and unconstitutional. … It’s either a public or a private school.”
There is further confusion, critics say, from the fact that the school is headed by a rabbi and serves only kosher food.
Deutsch, however, insisted that from the start, “we’ve been very clear what we are. We are not providing a Jewish or religious education. … If someone wants a religious education, this is not the place to go. We have been very clear that this is a dual language Hebrew-English program. Kids can bring non-kosher food to school and there is no praying and no religion” is taught.
He said he hopes to open five more charter schools in South Florida next August, as well as one in Los Angeles. He said he is planning to open a high school in New York in September 2009. And Deutsch denied rumors that he is working with Chabad to hold prayers in the schools and to teach Judaism.
Nancy Pryzant Picus, president of the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools, said she has “tremendous concerns” about this project, which is using exclusively public money.
“Since these schools are free, they will affect all of our day schools, and we have four in South Florida,” she said. “This year our Reform day schools have not lost more than a handful of our students to the charter school, and we have kept pretty close tabs on it.”
Among her concerns, Picus said, is that the charter schools may be unconstitutional.
“As a Jewish educator, I find it very difficult to teach the Hebrew language without teaching Judaism in some way,” she said. “That is a deep-seated concern.
Deutsch said his schools would also teach Jewish history and culture, but Picus said she “finds it difficult to imagine how the Hebrew language can be taught in a totally secular fashion. … ”
Cohen agreed, saying “Hebrew presents a particular challenge because so much of our literature is rooted in religious texts.” She noted that the Broward County School Board has directed the charter school to suspend Hebrew lessons until an acceptable non-religious curriculum is agreed upon.
Deutsch said he believes an acceptable compromise will be reached because he wants to accommodate the board’s concerns. Picus said “another deep concern I have is for schools that are affiliated with temples. What happens to the kids in those religious schools? I think the charter schools might draw from the synagogues. And what will keep them affiliated with a synagogue?”
Picus, who is director of Jewish learning at a day school in Houston, noted that there are 17 Reform day schools and that many of them have just 200 or 300 students.
“If the children leave us in large numbers, the schools will suffer financially,” she added.
Marvin Schick, a Jewish educational consultant, said there is already evidence that the Ben Gamla school is hurting Jewish day schools in South Florida. He noted that Deutsch said that 20 percent of the 400 students in the Ben Gamla school came from private schools and Schick said most are believed to have come from Jewish day schools. He noted that there were others who applied who could not get in because of a lack of room. Schick said he would not be surprised if a large number of them were also Jewish day school students.
“The damage that charter schools can do to existing day schools is far greater than any benefits that might be derived,” Schick insisted. One way it might work, he suggested, was if a nearby Jewish day school were to pair with the charter school and offer religious instruction at the end of the school day at a reduced tuition.
“The challenge would be to avoid it looking like a supplementary school that yields little or no benefit,” Schick said. “But if it can be done, maybe there could be some good.”
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, principal of the Ramaz School, said the idea of a public school that teaches Hebrew might “open the way for ordinary Jewish day schools to receive federal funding for their general studies or secular education. I don’t see how you could separate the two.”
But Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, said the Broward County Board of Education is going to great lengths to make sure there is not the slightest appearance of any religious teaching.
“They are going so far in Florida as to say you can’t use a religious text to teach Hebrew,” he said, adding that he doesn’t believe the rabbi’s approach would succeed.