Religious charter schools: just another way to draw students?
Can a charter school about Judaism not teach Judaism?
A school opening this month is named for a Jewish high priest, is directed by a rabbi, will have kosher food and will teach Hebrew. It's also a public school, funded by public tax dollars and following state curriculum guidelines.
Ben Gamla Charter School, billed as the nation's first publicly funded Hebrew-English school, has prompted fears of religion creeping into public schools and has even drawn criticism from groups that defend Jewish causes. Similar criticisms have been raised against Arabic-language charter schools elsewhere, with some saying those schools teach Islam.
Organizers insist that while Ben Gamla will teach Hebrew language and culture, it won't cross the divide between church and state.
"To me, it's very obvious that we're not teaching religion," said Rabbi Adam Siegel, the school's director. He previously directed two private Jewish day schools in Miami Beach. "Religion is prayer, it's God, it's Bible. And so if you stay away from there, you're not teaching religion."
Ben Gamla is the brainchild of former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, who said he was as surprised by the controversy surrounding the school as he was by the interest in it.
Its new building, set to open Aug. 20, will replace earlier quarters leased from a synagogue that had only enough room for 100 children in kindergarten through third grade. Within weeks of publicizing its opening, Deutsch said, the school received more than 800 applications. The three-story building the school is moving into has space for more than 400 students, through eighth grade.
"If we had 50 kids I would have been happy," said Deutsch, who hopes to open other schools in Miami, New York and Los Angeles.
Charter schools are publicly financed and run independently, sometimes by private entities. Some specialize in a language, a trade or some other subject.
Ben Gamla students will follow state curriculum, but also will take a Hebrew language course, and one of their core subjects — math or physical education, for example — will be taught bilingually.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the school sets a dangerous precedent.
"Whenever you have a public school, a public charter school, that focuses on a particular culture that has an intense religious connection, there is the risk that you will end up teaching that religion," he said. "It could happen because some people believe culture and religion are inseparable, or it could happen because many of the teachers and administrators are of one religion and don't recognize the problem."
Even the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federation of Broward County have expressed concerns.
"There are unanswered questions as to how the subject matter of Jewish culture can be taught without also teaching the Jewish religion," said federation head Eric Stillman.
Maybe someone needs to explain to me why charter schools need to pursue some sort of exotic niche in order to succeed? We've got charter schools that focus on weightlifting. We've got charter schools that have a military theme, charter schools that have a Greek theme (the language kind, not the Delta House kind, hopefully), charter schools that have a weightlifting theme, even. Maybe it might be more effective if, instead of being boutique schools, they might actually concentrate on, oh, I don't know, excelling at teaching their students the subject matter necessary for literacy in core subjects, the arts, and the like? I guess they're trying to mimic magnet schools. But I imagine that they couldn't beat off the students with a stick if they simply excelled at providing their students with an education.... instead of some appearing to be stalking horses for eroding the wall (currently composed of jello, apparently, in some places) between church and state? (Please see my previous post for the history of the meaning of the 1st Amendment's Establishment clause.)
The story goes on to discuss Arabic language charters being accused of being Islamic schools in disguise. Recently there was some controversy over the principal at New York's Khalil Gibran International Academy over her affiliation with a group selling T-shirts with the legend "Intifada NYC." I understand the principal resigned over the controversy, but I do not know enough about it to have an opinion. Anyone from NYC want to take a stab at it?
For a while there in my junior high years, my school seemed like a Baptist themed school when I was growing up, but no money officially went into the local preacher's pockets, at least. If there are Jewish day schools in Hollywood, Florida, why does there need to be a publicly funded one? Does it get back to the idea of subsidizing people's religious education, as I talked about previously? I wonder how a Catholic-themed charter school would go over?
It would be one thing if we were talking about a language with future economic or foreign policy import, such as, say, Mandarin or Spanish, or yes, Arabic, if it is done right. I know there's a difference between a language and a culture or religion. I wonder if the people running this school are as clear on that point as some of the rest of us are, though. I just question the need for this type of niche marketing.