Education News: Hebrew Charter School in New York

Mega-Donor Throws Clout Behind Hebrew Charter School
Steinhardt Backs Proposal for Publicly Funded School in N.Y.

Mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt is giving a big bump to the effort to create a national network of publicly funded Hebrew schools by putting his money behind an effort to open a Hebrew-language charter school in New York City.

A group of individuals with financial backing from the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life is planning to submit an application June 4 to the New York City Department of Education and the New York State Board of Regents to open the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn. According to Steinhardt’s daughter, Sara Berman, a trustee for the foundation and the lead applicant in the effort, the school’s curriculum would incorporate Hebrew-language instruction, as well as classes that cover Jewish culture and history and modern Israeli society.

The nation’s first Hebrew-language charter school, the Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School, sparked a firestorm of debate when it opened last August in Hollywood, Fla. Critics, including some in the Jewish community, warned that the school could blur the dividing line between church and state. Others in the Jewish community, including Steinhardt, praised Hebrew charter schools as a way to strengthen Jewish identity without the private and communal expense of day schools.

The move by Steinhardt to sponsor a school promises to lend significant weight to those who want to see such publicly funded schools spreading across the country.

“I think some people who hadn’t paid attention to the issue because it was not in their metropolitan area will begin to pay attention,” said Donald Sylvan, president of the not-for-profit Jewish Education Service of North America. “And the fact that Michael Steinhardt is backing the initiative will bring other people to point of paying attention when they might not have before.”

Steinhardt, a former hedge fund manager, has already backed a series of high-profile Jewish identity-building efforts ranging from the Birthright Israel program to the Jewish day school movement; however, he has recently soured on day schools, saying that they are too expensive and have been unable to attract most Jews. Over the past year, he had talked up the possibility of Hebrew charter schools as a new and cheaper way to strengthen Jewish communal identity.

“What if we unrolled a nationwide system of Jewish charter schools focusing on Jewish elements, not on religious studies — which appeals only to a minority of Jews anyway — but on the elements of Jewish culture that make us strong?” Steinhardt told a New Jersey audience last October, according to the New Jersey Jewish News. “It is clear that charter schools might be a solution to our communal needsΙ. We would be foolish to ignore their potential.”

The Steinhardt group is not the only school attempting to follow in the footsteps of the Ben Gamla school. Last April, the Bergen Record reported that a group of parents had submitted an application to the New Jersey Department of Education to open a Hebrew language and culture charter school in the city of Englewood. Peter Deutsch, a former congressman who founded the Ben Gamla school, said he had spoken with other groups from across the country that were interested in starting a Hebrew charter school, but he knew of no other groups submitting applications.

Deutsch has spoken extensively with the Steinhardt group, and he says that its application push will bring a new level of resources and expertise to Hebrew charter schools that could benefit the entire movement.

“If we’re the jalopy held together by rubber bands, they’re [Google founder] Sergey Brin’s 747,” Deutsch told the Forward. “They’re spending time and effort on curriculum development that we could never afford.”

The legal requirement that public schools steer clear of religion has required charter school backers to walk a delicate line in talking up their merits in promoting Jewish identity. When the Ben Gamla school first opened in August of last year, it made national headlines because of concerns about the separation between church and state in the school’s curriculum. The School Board of Broward County delayed the Ben Gamla school from implementing its Hebrew-language curriculum for several weeks, but ultimately allowed the school to proceed.

New York City already contains a number of language- and culture-themed schools, including, most controversially, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a specialty school (which is not a charter school) that deals with Arabic language and culture. After plans were announced last year for the Gibran Academy, activists who argued that the school would promote an Islamic agenda assailed the school and its principal, Debbie Almontaser. Last fall, Almontaser was forced to step down, and she and her critics have since engaged in a series of legal skirmishes, but the school is open and is wrapping up its first academic year.

Berman, a former news and features editor at the Forward, writes a regular column on parenting for the New York Sun, a New York daily newspaper in which Steinhardt is an investor. The Sun was one of the leading opponents of the Gibran school.

Ben Gamla and Gibran have been given a mixed reception by the Jewish community, which has traditionally supported a strong division between church and state. Marc Stern, a church-state expert at the American Jewish Congress, said that teaching Hebrew language and culture in public school is no more constitutionally problematic than teaching any other language or culture. But he and others have suggested that the general proliferation of language and culture schools threatens to balkanize American society along ethnic lines.

“One of the central purposes of public education in America is to bring kids from different backgrounds together to teach them what they have in common, to be tolerant citizens in a democracy,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Century Foundation, speaking prior to announcement. “I’d have some concerns about any charter school or public school which is aimed at a particular racial group, ethnic group, language group.”

Berman steered clear of any suggestion that the school would promote Jewish identity, saying that the school’s purpose was to provide a high-quality, dual-language education for students of all backgrounds.

“There’s something very beautiful about teaching all kinds of kids Hebrew,” Berman told the Forward. “In this district, there’s a Caribbean population, a Chinese population, African Americans, Russians, Israeli immigrants. I think it’s a very Jewish idea of everyone being taught this very great language.”

The new school would receive a majority of its funding from the New York City and State governments. It would eventually offer classes from kindergarten through fifth grade and would be open to applicants of any ethnic or religious background. If approved, the school could potentially open in the fall of 2009.

The group has not yet chosen a site, but the school would be in District 22, which covers a swath of central and southern Brooklyn that has a large and diverse population, including a heavy concentration of Jews. That encompasses large numbers of Orthodox Jews, who are unlikely to send their children to a public school, as well a sizable population of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Israel. Jewish-education experts said that these latter two populations could be receptive to a Hebrew-language charter school.

Berman said that the charter school group picked District 22 because it had “high concentrations of both Hebrew-speaking families and students who are at risk of educational failure,” thus it was a prime candidate for the proposed school. The school will give preference to applicants from within the district, followed by applicants from elsewhere in the city. If there are more applicants than slots, students will be chosen by lottery.

If approved, the school would open with 150 students, split between kindergarten and first grade. An additional grade would be added in each subsequent year, until the school reached an enrollment of 450 students. Though the majority of funds would come from the city and state, many charter school backers raise additional private funds. The Steinhardt Foundation has been in talks with other organizations about teaming up to provide funding for the school.

The city Department of Education and the state Board of Regents will review charter school applications over the summer and are expected to render their decision by December or by January 2009.

Thu. May 29, 2008

Resources: U.S. Govt Policy on Protected Prayer in Schools

Link to U.S. Government guidelines for Constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools:

Education News: Charter School Parents on the March

SOURCE: ICEF Public Schools

Jun 05, 2008 12:00 ET

Thousands of Charter School Parents March to Demand Equal Education

Rally Launches Families That Can, the First Statewide Advocacy Group of Charter School Parents, Grandparents and Family Members

LOS ANGELES, CA–(Marketwire – June 5, 2008) – Thousands of parents will join forces today to march in Downtown Los Angeles to demand that charter school students no longer be treated as second-class citizens by school districts such as Los Angeles Unified, and to launch the first-ever statewide advocacy organization on behalf of charter school families.

This new parent organization, “Families That Can,” will advocate for choice, equity and accountability in California’s public school system.

More than 100 charter schools, representing tens of thousands of students throughout the state, have already committed to the vision of Families That Can. With 240,000 charter students throughout the state, the movement is geared to organize hundreds of thousands of parents to demand that school districts and the state treat charter school students fairly.

As public education in the state faces severe budget cuts this year, charter families are coming together to ensure that school districts don’t balance their budgets on the backs of charter schools, while standing up to defend their public school choice.

“School districts throughout California are mistreating our children, suffocating the growth of charter schools, and offering inadequate facilities and disproportionate funding,” said founding parent Corri Tate Ravare, whose son attends ICEF Public Schools’ successful View Park Prep High School and whose daughter attends View Park Prep Elementary School. “Through Families That Can, our families will fight unfair moves by school districts such as Los Angeles Unified and will demand equal education, equal treatment and equal resources for our kids.”

“Charter school students are public school students, yet they don’t have the same access to resources, funding and facilities that traditional public schools do,” said founding parent Jackie Duvivier Castillo, whose twin daughters attend PUC Schools’ CALS Early College Charter High School. “Los Angeles Unified continues to create obstacles for charter schools by withholding $80 million in construction bonds and leaving dozens of schools operating out of inadequate facilities.”

Estimates have pegged the lack of funding that each charter school student receives to be as much as $3,000 less per year than a traditional public school student. Meanwhile, school districts like Los Angeles Unified are denying charter students the basic facilities and services to which all public school students are entitled, like school police, transportation, gymnasiums, auditoriums and adequate classroom space.

The catalyst for the creation of Families That Can came last August, when a group of 700 Los Angeles-based charter school parents successfully fought and prevented state policymakers from taking away a vital $18 million charter school facilities program that has proven to be a lifeblood resource for charter schools serving under-served students.

Partnering with this new parent organization is the California Charter Schools Association, the statewide membership and advocacy organization for charter schools, as well as Sacramento-based EdVoice, an education advocacy organization. For more information, visit

About Families That Can

Families That Can is the first statewide advocacy organization consisting of charter school parents, grandparents and family members. More than 100 charter schools representing tens of thousands of students in the state have committed to the mission of the organization. Families That Can will advocate for families with children in the public school system with the goal of organizing more than 20,000 charter family members to catalyze change in public education throughout California.

Resources: US Govt Education Policy Documents

Debate: The Pros and Cons of Vouchers

Below are some links to various viewpoints in the debate on vouchers: