Monday, January 14, 2013

Big Money Leads To Big Fight At East Brunswick Hebrew Charter

It was almost a year ago that my fellow Highland Park residents and I were able to successfully derail the application for the Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School.  Diane Ravitch wrote a post today titled Do Affluent White Neighborhoods Need Charter Schools? in which she very matter-of-factly states:
There is a charter school for rich white kids in Los Altos (the Bullis School), the Metro Nashville school board has been trying to stop the Great Hearts Academy of Arizona from opening a charter in an affluent white neighborhood, Eva Moskowitz has opened charters in affluent NYC communities on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Cobble Hill in Brooklyn (maybe that’s why she changed the name of her chain from “Harlem Success Academy” to “Success Academy”). New Jersey parents in middle-class towns have thus far repelled them.(emphasis mine)
While in case after case New Jersey parents in thriving districts have had success pushing back against unwanted charters, before parents from across the state caught on to what was going on and started joining forces, a few slipped through the cracks.

Case in point, Hatikvah International Academy Charter School. Hatikvah was approved in 2009 and opened in 2010, amidst a legal challenge from the East Brunswick School District claiming that Hatikvah didn't reach 90% enrollment, as required under New Jersey's charter school law.  Ultimately Hatikvah's approval was upheld.

But it wasn't just the East Brunswick district that was concerned about the effect Hatikvah would have on the public schools.  Leaders in the Jewish community were equally if not more concerned about the impact on local religious schools, already struggling in a bad economy.

Current enrollment numbers from October 15, 2012, show that Hatikvah does not come close to enrolling 90% of it's students from East Brunswick, the only district the school was actually approved to serve.  In fact, only 57% of the students at Hatikvah are presently from East Brunswick, and the other 43% are drawn from 17 neighboring towns.  One of the districts, Toms River, is 49 miles away! 

Here are the current enrollment numbers.

Only 110 of their 194 students are from East Brunswick, which seriously undermines the idea that this school was "needed" or "wanted" in the community it was approved to serve.  If they need to cast such a wide net to fill their seats, what does that mean about the NJDOE's decision to approve this charter, and it's decision to keep it open despite the VERY limited interest in East Brunswick?

According to the official enrollment numbers, Hatikvah serves 13 students from Highland Park, costing our district just shy of $165,000.  Highland Park had absolutely NO SAY in the approval process when Hatikvah was being considered by the NJDOE, yet proportionately the school is having almost the same impact it has in East Brunswick (Hatikvah serves .08% of Highland Park's public school students, and 1.3% of East Brunswick's).  

Highland Park administrators have found that the majority of children attending Hatikvah have never been served in our public schools - either parents place their children into Hatikvah in Kindergarten, or they transfer from private, religious schools. Nonetheless, our district is billed $12,692 (13 students at a cost of $165,000 = $12,692) per student, so the Hatikvah bill is just a loss of revenue for our district, with no cost savings at all.  

And while most charters complain that they get less than the 90% per pupil funding required by law, according to per pupil dollar amounts on the NJDOE website, Highland Park K-5 students come with a $13,239 per pupil price tag. 90% of that figure is $11,915 per student. But Highland Park Schools are billed $12,692 for Hatikvah students; almost 96% of our per pupil funding amount.  

In addition to this figure, Highland Park is required by law to provide the family of each child that attends Hatikvah aid in lieu of transportation, which is another $900 or so dollars per student, for a total of approximately $13,592.  

In other words, we end up paying MORE per pupil for children that never sat in a seat in one of our schools to attend a charter school that wasn't approved to serve our district.

Well, that seems fair, doesn't it?  

At the start of the 2012-2013 school year Hatikvah was accused of violating a use variance granted for their current location. In 2011 they were limited by the East Brunswick Zoning Board to an enrollment of 152 students, but as seen above, they flagrantly disregarded this ruling and started the 2012-2013 school year by enrolling 192 students from ALL OVER the state.

And now a warehouse in an industrial zone has been purchased for Hatikvah, and they have already started construction to convert the warehouse into a school.  They were granted a variance by the zoning board in July, but an appeal of that decision has been filed by two East Brunswick residents.  (Full disclosure, I know both well, as we work together as organizers for Save Our Schools NJ.)

Check out the link above, and the as of now 149 comments this piece has elicited. The exchange is absolutely wild, and demonstrates the kind of sticky wicket a charter school can create in a town like East Brunswick.  

While there are attempts from folks on both sides to keep the debate about what is supposed to be the issue at hand, the zoning issues and zoning issues alone, accusations are flying about the merits of this particular charter school, it's benefit (or lack there of) to the town, the use of tax dollars, political corruption, etc. etc.  

As I read the comments I am struck by a number of things, but mostly that were it not for outside money and influence, this divide would not have been created in this town.  Two monied interests have created this conflict by using large sums to create and support Hatikvah.  

Most recently, The Eisenreich Family Foundation, which reportedly has $45 million in assets, purchased the warehouse in question for Hatikvah.   

Not a bad ally to have, huh?  And Eisenreich isn't the only big money backer to belly up to the bar. 

Hatikvah gained approval and was given generous support to open from the Hebrew Charter School Center (HSCS).  HCSC is an offshoot of  the Areivim Philanthropic Group, a joint venture of hedge fund demi-billionaire Michael Steinhardt's Foundation for Jewish Life and the William Davidson Foundation. The Davidson Foundation alone claims it will dump $50 million a year into "local and Jewish" causes.

And watch out, HSCS may be coming to your town next!
The network hopes to open an additional 20 Hebrew charters in five years. According to HCSC officials, the network’s fifth school may open in Harlem, New York’s historic center of African-American life and culture, pending approval at the state level. A group in Minneapolis, Minn., has expressed interest in opening an affiliated charter. “There are a number of states with very positive charter laws,” said HCSC’s Listhaus. “We are looking in those places.”(emphasis mine)
Just look at the joy they've brought to the people of East Brunswick and the surrounding communities!  No local control, and all the outside influence you can stomach!  Who could resist?

All joking aside, until there is local control we will see brawls like this in town after town, in state after state.  When Foundations back the money truck into a town and empower a VERY small segment of the population to feel entitled to services not enjoyed by the rest of the tax paying population, there is bound to be friction.

I have heard many of the supporters of Hatikvah make claims that their school is "increasing property values" by attracting parents to town to attend this "innovative" charter, and that the charter is forcing the district schools to improve.

As described above, parents clearly have no need to move to East Brunswick to attend Hatikvah since students are coming from 17 neighboring towns!  What Hatikvah is ACTUALLY doing is DRAINING resources from other towns.  Not quite the same thing. 

East Brunswick schools did indeed add full day Kindergarten to their district.  Hatikvah heavily advertised their full day Kindergarten program, so to stop the hemoraghing of students to Hatikvah in that grade the district opted to add full day Kindergarten.  But to pay the Hatikvah bill East Brunswcik superintendent Dr. Jo Ann Magistro was forced to cut: 
The elementary foreign language program 

The summer Academy for at-risk students

21 extra-curricular clubs

3 sports programs
Ain't competition grand?

But more than anything, Hatikvah supporters argue most often that no matter what, their charter is here to stay.  And they are probably right.  Odds of the NJDOE closing a charter in an affluent town are slim to none.  They save that "reform" for the charters in poor, urban communities. 

No matter how unjust it may be that 17 districts, and the majority of residents in East Brunswick have been forced by the State to support and foot the bill for what amounts to a private school serving the needs of a select few, it is indeed a fact.  

Tonight the zoning issue, and the zoning issue alone, will be decided by the East Brunswick Township Council. My guess is no matter what they decide the saga will continue.

Stay tuned.  

UPDATE:  The East Brunswick Township Council voted unanimously to reject the Zoning Board's decision to allow a use variance for Hatikvah to relocate in a light industrial zone.  The Council didn't send it back to the Zoning Board for further deliberation; they outright rejected it.  Hard to imagine that the lawyers for the Eisenreich Family Foundation and the Hebrew Charter School Center aren't lining their ducks up in a row to appeal this decision as I write this.  

The Eisenreich Family Foundation spent $2.7 million on the building, and construction has already begun. Talk about putting the cart before the horse...  And as we know, the Hebrew Charter School Center has plans for 20 Hebrew Charters around the country.  Sure wouldn't look good for one of their first charters to crash and burn like this.

In addition to this loss, Hatikvah is still not in compliance with the zoning variance on their current facility, and continues to enroll more students than they are zoned to house.  No doubt they failed to come into compliance because they assumed they would win this appeal, construction would continue, and they would move into their new space.  

Expect a bumpy few months ahead for the Hatikvah International Academy.

Kudos to Deborah Cornavaca and Cris Rampolla for standing up for what they thought was right.  They endured hate mail, slanderous comments in a local paper, and regular public bashings to bring this appeal, and in the end they prevailed over very rich, very powerful interests. 

Sometimes, just sometimes, democracy works.  My hat is off to them!  


  1. Charter Schools are a zero sum game. The creation of specific "charters" leads to the Balkanization of communities and the reinvention of what public schools were meant to represent. The purpose of a school defines its population, hence, Charters actually will lead to de facto segregation.

  2. Thanks for the shout out Darcie - you inspire and inform!

  3. Why not let the money follow the child? If parents want their children to attend language immersion school, a Montessori school, a Core Knowledge school etc, why not let them send their children to whatever school they wish and have their per-pupil spending follow them?

    We have a balkanized education system as it is. Kids who live in East Brunswick go to EB schools, kids who live in Metuchen go to Metuchen schools, kids who live in South Brunswick go to SB schools etc. Let kids choose to go to schools that best fit their interests and personalities and this artificial geographic segregation will diminish.

    If you were so concerned about the financial problems of traditional public schools, you would be more worried about OOD tuition, health care increases, and staff salaries that increase faster than 2%. Some of those kids getting OOD placements may have severe conditions like autism, but not all of them do. If you look at what schools kids are being placed at, you will see that many of them specialize in educating kids with ADD.

    Focusing on charter schools just makes you look like an ideologue. You were brought up with education delivered in a certain way (ie, by the govt) and you cannot imagine it delivered differently.

    Opposing a charter school because it "siphons money away from public schools" is like opposing using Pell grants at private colleges "because they siphon money away from Rutgers." You want to defund and close Hatikvah. Great. Do you favor defunding and closing Drew, Seton Hall, Centenary College too?

  4. School district boundaries are just arbitrarily- drawn lines. There's no reason whatsoever that the main criterion for where we send our children should be anything other than the school that best fits them.