Fresh Debate Over New National Charter School Movement


The race to establish a national Hebrew charter schools movement has officially begun, igniting a growing, and fierce, debate about the vision and purpose of schools that could potentially revolutionize the American Jewish education landscape.

While only three Hebrew charter schools exist right now, and the oldest — the first of two “Ben Gamla” schools in South Florida — is just in its third year, a new effort backed by a partnership of major Jewish philanthropists such as heavy-hitters Michael Steinhardt and Harold Grinspoon plans to see at least 20 additional Hebrew charter schools starting up by 2015.

What the demographic balance between Jewish and non-Jewish students will be in these publicly funded (but philanthropically supplemented) schools — and whether they could lure large numbers of students from Jewish day schools, as some fear — is an open question.

The charter school experiment brings together many potentially volatile elements: millions of Jewish philanthropic dollars, billions of taxpayer dollars, racial politics and vastly different interpretations of both constitutional law and the competing strains of universalism and particularism within Jewish tradition.

The new schools come onto the scene at a time when the American Jewish day school system, once the darling of philanthropists like Steinhardt although never embraced by the majority of non-Orthodox Jewish parents, finds itself cash-strapped and recession-battered, with even some highly committed parents considering transferring their children to public schools.

The fledgling Hebrew charter school world has two major players right now, although only one — the newly launched Hebrew Charter School Center — is actively seeking to build the movement beyond Florida.

Quietly launched over the past year by the Areivim Philanthropic Group, a Jewish funding partnership established by Birthright Israel co-founder Steinhardt and the late William Davidson (whose estate Areivim is currently suing), the $3.2 million Hebrew Charter School Center is providing seed money and free consulting to aspiring Hebrew charter schools throughout the country.

Last month, more than 50 activists with a dozen charter schools in various stages of development, came to Westchester for a three-day “institute.” Led by staff from the New York-based Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, a national group that has been contracted to run the Center, the institute addressed church-state laws, the process of obtaining state charters, curriculum, teacher training and a variety of other issues.

The Center is preparing to award a total of $750,000 in grants to six schools, including the Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences in Santa Clarita, Calif., and Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick, N.J., both slated to open in August.

With a “vanguard” grant of $500,000 this year and another $500,000 planned for next year, Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy Charter School — launched last fall with considerable startup funds and resources from the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life — is receiving the lion’s share of the funding for now.

While the goal is not to clone HLA, an elementary school that currently enrolls 160 students, the Center is promoting many aspects of the school, including its intensive “proficiency-based” Hebrew-language approach, its reading curriculum and its racially diverse student body (the school is approximately 60 percent white and 35 percent black).

“We’re not replicating; we’re providing a wealth of education resources and knowledge that planning groups can tap to develop highly educationally sound models,” said Rabbi David Gedzelman, executive vice president of the Steinhardt foundation and an officer with the Hebrew Charter School Center.

“They won’t all look like our model, but they’ll be completely thought through and of the highest educational quality,” Gedzelman added.

While the Hebrew Language Academy may be the “vanguard,” the school, chaired by Steinhardt’s daughter Sara Berman (who also chairs the new Center), is not without its critics even within the Hebrew charter school world.

Some wonder whether new schools would do better to follow in the very different footsteps of Florida’s Ben Gamla network.

Founded in 2007 by former Florida Rep. Peter Deutsch, the network boasts two elementary schools (a Hollywood one is k-8, a Plantation one is k-5). Deutsch, who has already obtained four additional charters, plans to open another elementary school, and possibly a high school as well, this August.

By law, charter schools are open to all children and are not allowed to collect data about students’ religion. However, Deutsch “guesstimates” that 85 percent of Ben Gamla students are Jewish.

While the school has so far steered clear of church-state related legal troubles, it has not been afraid to push the envelope: the school’s first principal was an Orthodox rabbi, and independently run, after-school religious studies are offered (for a fee) on school grounds, with approximately half of the 600 students opting to participate.

Compare that to HLA, where, while no one knows the exact number of Jewish students, estimates range from 50 to 70 percent (at least two of the black students are also Jewish). HLA’s principal and head of general studies are both black, and school organizers have been very careful to keep all religious symbols out of the classroom, even removing mezuzahs from doorways and refusing to use auditorium space the school had leased until a synagogue that had been occupying the space vacated it in December. While the Hebrew Charter School Center is developing optional, independently-run, after-school Jewish religious studies tailored for HLA students, this program will not be offered in the same building as the school (which ironically is located in space rented from a yeshiva).

Several Jewish HLA parents are already enrolling their children in supplemental religious programs elsewhere; one father told The Jewish Week that he and another HLA parent have hired a private tutor to offer instruction, while a mother reported enrolling her son at a Sunday school offered at a nearby Jewish Y.

In championing their Hebrew charter model, Berman and Gedzelman talk about the brain-development benefits of dual-language education and use terms like “schools of excellence,” “tolerance” and “diversity,” whereas Deutsch, in championing Ben Gamla, talks about “Jewish communal” benefits.

The differences of course also stem from the differences between Florida, where charter school application requirements are less stringent and the population more politically conservative than in the arguably more bureaucratic and liberal New York landscape.

“There’s things you can do in Florida that you can’t do in New York,” observed Marvin Schick, a consultant with the Avi Chai Foundation who has studied various aspects of Jewish education.

Officials interviewed with the Steinhardt foundation, Areivim and the Hebrew Charter School Center declined to discuss Ben Gamla or Deutsch, other than to credit Deutsch with creating the idea of Hebrew charter schools.

However, one charter school planner who has been consulting with the Center and did not want to be identified for fear of damaging his relationship with the Center, said he sees Ben Gamla as “an example of what not to do,” saying it serves too narrow a constituency and is too similar in approach to a Jewish day school.

In seeding the charter school movement, the Center has not actively recruited people to start charter schools, but is working with groups that approach it — or that have approached HLA — for help. But not everyone makes the cut: four Hebrew charter school planning groups, including one in Bergen County, N.J., were recently rejected for grants.

“Some groups didn’t seem to understand the importance of reaching out to all members of the community,” Berman explained. “Some groups we didn’t feel would be successful in receiving their charter. And some weren’t committed to the level of academic excellence we’re committed to.”

Ben Gamla has not applied for Center assistance, although some of its leaders attended last month’s conference in Westchester.

For his part, Ben Gamla’s Deutsch told The Jewish Week he thinks the HLA approach is “misguided.”

“Is the vision to show you can have a Hebrew-engaged program and show the positive values of Hebrew history and culture to the general community?” he asked. “If that’s the goal, [Steinhardt has] accomplished it. But from a Jewish communal perspective, it’s not such a significant goal.”

Indeed, says Deutsch, whose official role with Ben Gamla is as pro bono attorney, “very few Jews are going to put together the amount of time, money and effort to build a school where the majority of kids are not Jewish. It doesn’t deal with the fundamental challenge of the American Jewish community, that you don’t have kids getting a Jewish education.”

Deutsch emphasized that he admires HLA’s Hebrew curriculum, which he wants to see Ben-Gamla adapt in a “more cost-efficient manner.” He also is a fan of Steinhardt, who met with Deutsch and visited Ben Gamla before HLA obtained its charter.

“I’d put him in the top five or 10 people on this planet,” Deutsch said, praising his support of Birthright Israel and other Jewish projects.

Nonetheless, Deutsch said, “If you really want to change the Jewish community, what’s so great about a gentile speaking Hebrew? It’s amazing, but not important from a Jewish communal perspective.”

In contrast, he said, Ben Gamla from a Jewish perspective is “off-the-charts amazing. It’s changing lives. It works. It’s a model that really can change the Jewish community in America.”

Is it a legitimate use of tax dollars, however, or does it represent —as some critics have charged — a gaming of the system?

“We’re not trying to game the system at all,” Deutsch responds. “There’s no praying in school. We can’t require kids to have yarmulkes or to [say blessings] after they eat. If a teacher did it, he or she would be fired on the spot. There’s a very, very clear line in terms of what you can and can’t do.”

Avi Chai’s Schick said he worries that both the Steinhardt model and the Deutsch model pose threats to day schools, but said it is “way too early to tell” what their impacts will be on Jewish life.

However, while he speculated that “there is a prospect that the Ben Gamla approach might have, for a number of families, meaningful [Jewish] benefits,” particularly from its after-school program, “I see scant benefits coming out of the Steinhardt/Berman model.”

“I just don’t see it happening, because Hebrew language instruction alone just doesn’t mean much,” he explained.

Carol Ingall, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s William Davidson School of Education (the same Davidson who co-founded Areivim), said she is watching the charter school experiment with interest, and she speculated that, while there will be definite overlap, the Jewish demographic that charter schools attract may be far different from the day school market.

“There have always been Jews who believe in the public schools but are conflicted about Jewish cultural literacy,” Ingall said. “Schools like these might give them what they want: diversity and Hebrew language, even if they won’t get the ritual skills, prayer experiences or religious meaning from the Bible and so forth.”