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:

Pledge of Allegiance Debate

Newdow & Us
Much more than one case and two words.

By Gilbert T. Sewall

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

In 2002, in the case of Newdow v. Elk Grove Unified School District, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the First Amendment. Those who object to “under God” say the two words turn the pledge into an unconstitutional religious statement.

Today the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the matter. The case is almost surely destined to enter the history textbooks, especially if it becomes a hot-button issue in this year’s national elections.

The pledge is the customary way of honoring the nation in public schools. It is mandated by law as part of the school program in many states, including California. Public schools started adopting the pledge in 1892, following a campaign on the part of Francis Bellamy, Baptist minister, member of the National Education Association, and the prominent editor of The Youth’s Companion. It is an artifact of the era’s ardent patriotism as well as part of a conscious turn-of-the-century effort to Americanize immigrant children.

Liberal legend has it that “under God”‘s inclusion is simply a function of mid-century McCarthyism — the two words were added by Congress in 1954. But, as James Piereson has observed, the phrase “under God” — introduced by George Washington and reiterated by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address — has been in the nation’s public vocabulary since the Founding.

What does the pledge do? It establishes a common political purpose and collective aspiration. It affirms the principle of “liberty and justice for all” citizens. The pledge celebrates a specific political philosophy: the republic of which the flag is a symbol. “Under God” injects the element of providence — and turns the oath into something of a public prayer.

The pledge is one of the nation’s few civic universals. It states in elegant but clear language — in very few words — some public principles that a large number of Americans, especially children, would have a hard time articulating on their own.

Still, for many secularists, God in the pledge suggests a state-imposed religion, an exclusionary one dictated by Christian conservatives. As they see it, proscription would be a victory over repressive cultural forces.

The litigant, Michael Newdow, and his allies — notably the American Civil Liberties Union — are convinced that yanking divine benefaction from the operative American creed is a progressive step toward restoring the purity of the pledge.

Sacramento-based Newdow is a shrewd lawyer and atheist who likes to use press conferences and talk shows as courtrooms. Newdow himself will argue the case before the Court on behalf of his nine-year-old daughter. A plaintiff in other federal cases, he has challenged the 2000 inaugural prayer and the presence of chaplains in Congress.

Meanwhile, for many traditionalists, expunging God from the creed is sacrilege. They say it is a determined and fateful break with the essence of the nation’s Founding. The Court hearing has been preceded by days of Capitol Hill anti-religion rallies and prayer vigils.

Many people on both sides of the matter, religious and not, consider this Newdow campaign absurd and dangerous. Yet the arguments follow 40 years of secularist litigation designed to excise God from public life. The logic of the appeals court is consistent and compatible with numerous federal rulings. In substance and spirit, the Ninth Circuit follows decades of highly restrictive decisions on religion in the nation’s schools. Bearing that in mind, in some ways, no matter the ruling in this case, the damage is already done. One or another faction is likely to contest the results, and demagogues will have a field day. Ugly and long-lasting civic repercussions may ensue from the Newdow case, of the kind that change the course of history.

Gilbert T. Sewall is the director of the American Textbook Council in New York City.

Resources: U.S. Department of Education link


For resources go to:

Resources: Office of Management and Budget, Education Link

Office of Management and Budget

Department of Education

Budget Fiscal Year 2007

Education Debate: The Need to Teach Arabic after 9/11

After Sputnik, It Was Russian; After 9/11, Should It Be Arabic?
The New York Times, June 16, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman

Less than a year after the Soviet Union launched a satellite named Sputnik in October 1957, America answered with a counterstrike. It was a piece of legislation, the National Defense Education Act, which aimed at harnessing brain power rather than weaponry for the cold war.

Mostly, the statute poured federal money into stimulating the study of mathematics and science, disciplines most relevant to the arms race, but a portion provided incentives for universities to develop skilled speakers of strategic languages, especially Russian.

Over more than three decades, as the support for language study was written into other federal laws, a steady stream of 30,000 or more American university students took Russian courses each year.

They became not only the translators, cryptologists and intelligence agents required for what President John F. Kennedy famously called the “long twilight struggle” between Communism and the West but also the scholars, diplomats and sundry Sovietologists who in many ways enacted the policy of detente and assisted in the peaceful resolution of the cold war.

Now, nearly three years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda and amid a turbulent occupation of Iraq, Congress and the Bush administration have failed to endorse and endow a similar cohort of civilian experts in the languages of the Muslim world.

While the administration has given priority to training more linguists within the military and the national-security apparatus, legislation modeled on the National Defense Education Act and offered repeatedly over several years by Congressional Democrats has not even made it out committee.

Meanwhile, of more than 1.8 million graduates of American colleges and universities in 2003, exactly 22 took degrees in Arabic, according to Department of Education statistics.

“Compared to the cold war, we’re not even at the level of zero,” said Dan E. Davidson, the president of the American Councils for International Education in Washington and a professor of Russian at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. “We’re at minus one.”

Such views are widely shared among experts in languages and national security. “In the post-9-11 world, we’ve continued to not get the profundity of the problem,” said Ellen Laipson, a linguist and former intelligence official who is now president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington public policy institute focusing on national security issues. “We’re reduced to putting 800 numbers on the TV screen asking for people who speak Arabic.”

Ms. Laipson referred to one of several episodes in the immediate aftermath of the Al Qaeda attacks that laid bare the government’s language gap. The F.B.I. had a backlog of thousands of hours of audiotape and thousands of pages of written material in Arabic and Central Asian languages waiting for translation.

The State Department had to call a diplomat fluent in Arabic back from retirement to appear on the Al Jazeera cable network. A report in early 2002 by the General Accounting Office confirmed that shortages of linguists had “hindered U.S. military, law enforcement, intelligence, counterterrorism and diplomatic efforts.”

Representative Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey who has sponsored several measures on language education in the House, recalled meeting with Special Forces soldiers who had been involved in the futile hunt for Osama bin Laden. None, Mr. Holt said, was fluent in Pashto, the primary language along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

“There doesn’t seem to be anywhere in our government a strategic view about how you get a new flow of linguists,” Mr. Holt said in an interview last week. “It’s all based on the assumption there’s a pool of linguists already out there. And that’s a fallacious assumption.”

“Last year, Mr. Holt introduced the National Security Language Act, which would have put at least $75 million into encouraging study of critical languages from primary school through the graduate level and culling skilled speakers from ethnic and immigrant communities.

“Two Democratic senators, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, offered a similar package of incentives both in 2001 and 2003 under the rubric of the Homeland Security Education Act. Without Republican backing, those measures went nowhere.

“The Bush administration instead has relied heavily on the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif., to meet the nation’s linguistic needs. By design, however, the institute serves only military personnel, accommodating up to 3,500 annually with courses in 21 languages. Trent Duffy, a deputy press secretary in the White House, said the Bush administration addressed nonmilitary language needs with $100 million in aid under the Higher Education Act. “Past that,” he said, “it’s left up to the individual student which fields to pursue.”

Experts in language study offer several reasons for the administration’s seeming indifference. President Bush’s involvement in education is centered on the No Child Left Behind law, which itself has not been fully financed. Neoconservatives inside and outside government have assailed Middle East studies departments — the likely recipients of any increased federal money for advanced study of Arabic and related languages — for alleged bias against the United States and Israel. It is expensive and time-consuming to conduct security checks of Arab immigrants interested in serving as linguists.

“We can hope, but hope won’t do it,” said Richard Brecht, a former Air Force cryptographer who is executive director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Language, a joint project of the Defense Department and the University of Maryland based in College Park. “Five billion dollars for an F-22 will not help us in the battle against terrorism. Language that helps us understand why they’re trying to harm us will.”

Congress will soon demonstrate whether such a realization is taking hold. This week Representative Holt and several Republican co-sponsors are introducing two bills that amount to a pared-down version of his National Security Language Act, this time focusing on higher education and adult civilians at a fraction of the original price tag.

“If Osama bin Laden is indeed America’s most wanted,” Mr. Holt said, “then clearly we’re limited if we can’t speak the language of the people who might be hiding him.”