N.J. Hebrew Charter Wins State Commissioner Support

N.J. Hebrew Charter Wins State Commissioner Support

East Brunswick’s Hatikvah facing last-minute legal battle but has won the backing of state attorney general.

With New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education ruling in its favor Thursday, a fledgling Hebrew-language charter school’s chances of opening, as scheduled next month have dramatically increased.

New Jersey’s first Hebrew charter school, Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick received its charter earlier this year and final state approval this summer, but is facing resistance from the East Brunswick Board of Education, which filed a lawsuit against it on Aug. 11, arguing that the school has insufficient enrollment.

Hatikvah is one of three new Hebrew charter schools slated to open in the United States this fall, bringing the national total of such schools to six.

In his ruling Thursday, Commissioner of Education Bret Schundler agreed with the state attorney general, who filed a brief earlier this week on the charter school’s behalf, arguing that East Brunswick had not met any of the four conditions required for a stay to be granted and that the district’’s main arguments were “"without merit"” and “"spurious at best.”"

In a press release, the East Brunswick board noted that by state law a charter school must have enrolled at least 90 percent of the school’s approved maximum enrollment to receive a green light. It contends that Hatikvah, whose maximum enrollment is 108, did not have the required 97 students, according to the school board’s records.

Hatikvah founder and board member Yair Nezaria said that as of June 30 the school had not only met, but had exceeded, the enrollment requirement, “and the district knows that.” Nezaria called the legal action “an attempt to sabotage the school” and said it “demonstrated a profound lack of official understanding.”

He acknowledged enrollment has fluctuated as people pulled out for various reasons, causing a dip in July. But new applicants have taken most of those spots, despite what he called the district’s attempts to discourage students by not issuing requested transfer cards.

“It’s not really legal,” said Nezaria. “They’re not really playing by the rules.”

He called the local board’s move “an 11th-hour attempt by the East Brunswick Board of Education to block excellent school choice in East Brunswick and instill fear and anxiety into Hatikvah families by infusing an air of uncertainty.”

Attempts to reach the district’s attorney, Matthew J. Giacobbe, were unsuccessful.

The school expects to begin the year Sept. 7 with grades K-2 in rented space behind a Presbyterian church.

Local districts must allocate to charter schools 90 percent of the costs of educating students as well as provide transportation. East Brunswick has budgeted $1.22 million for Hatikvah.

Nezaria said the school has already raised $335,000 through private donors toward making up the remaining 10 percent. Among the school’s financial supporters is the Hebrew School Charter Center, a new group, funded largely by mega-donor Michael Steinhardt, which seeks to build a national movement of Hebrew-language charter schools.

The center has awarded $750,000 in grants this year to charter school initiatives in varying stages of development around the United States, including $500,000 to Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, which opened in August 2009. In addition to the Brooklyn and East Brunswick schools, there are three Hebrew charter schools in Florida (all called Ben-Gamla and founded by former Florida congressman Peter Deutsch). And a charter high school that offers, but does not require, Hebrew, is slated to open this fall in Santa Clarita, Calif. The Florida and California schools receive no funding from the Hebrew Charter School Center.

While charter schools, by law, are open to all students regardless of religion and are not allowed to teach religion, the Hebrew Charter School Center also helps fund after-school programs that do offer religious instruction.

Nezaria refuted some area residents’ concerns that the school, despite requirements that it not teach religion, represents government funding for a sectarian purpose. Nezaria said the student population was racially and religiously diverse.

Nezaria described the school’s curriculum earlier this month in an e-mail to NJJN: “Hatikvah’s focus on World Jewish communities and Israel is aligned with the Hebrew language instruction, allowing students to understand that history, culture, and language are deeply intertwined in the particular communities studied as well as all communities around the world.”

Talking to a reporter this week he said, “Something tells me if we picked French as a second language we would not be meeting nearly as much resistance. The incredible lengths which the school board of East Brunswick will go to prevent this school is astonishing.”

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