Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Hebrew Charters: Does Crafty Compartmentalization of Secular and Religious Programs Equal A True Separation Of Church And State?

Over the past two years I've written multiple posts about the Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick. Most recently I've written about their proposed expansion, and some of the issues involved, including the fact that Hatikvah has morphed into a statewide charter, drawing from 21 districts across the state, and that they seem to be attracting a less diverse and more privileged student body, leading the charter to "recruit for diversity" in a district that's 98% minority and 93% free/reduced lunch.

As one of his parting acts, on Friday February 28th, which is his last day on the job, Commissioner Chris Cerf is expected to announce his decision on the proposed expansion. Will the Commissioner heed the advice of the six Superintendents most impacted by Hatikvah, and deny the expansion?

There is one issue not addressed in the letter, that even I have not broached yet. 

Until now.  

I fully expect this to be explosive, and to generate some serious criticism.  I'm ready for it, so let's dive in.

Can A Hebrew Charter Truly Be Secular?

In the press there are constant denials that there is any religious intent behind Hatikvah, and that the charter is completely secular. 
The New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center helped establish the Hatikvah Hebrew charter school in East Brunswick, New Jersey, whose principal, Marcia Grayson, says that she tries to maintain a nonsectarian identity for the school. “We are hypervigilant about church and state,” Grayson says. “We go so far out of our way to make sure that we are not perceived as a Jewish school.”
While Hatikvah may indeed "go out of their way" to avoid the "perception" that Hatikvah is a "Jewish school", there is often a large gulf between perception and reality.

The Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC), which provides the start up funding for Hebrew charters like Hatikvah, similarly distances itself from the Ben Gamla chain of Hebrew Charters which has no problem whatsoever identifying their schools as Jewish.
“A lot of Jewish education goes on in the schools, absolutely,” said Deutsch, a former Florida congressman who serves as Ben Gamla’s legal counsel. 
“It’s a very Jewish school, just not a Jewish religious school,” he said. “The definition of Judaism is not just a religion, it’s peoplehood — the same way the Irish or Chinese are a people." 
Ben Gamla and HCSC represent two radically different approaches to the rapidly growing Hebrew charter movement. (emphasis mine)
But, I don't buy that there's much difference at all between the HCSC charters and the Ben Gamla charters. And I'll tell you why. 

It's possible I suppose to argue that the education provided at the charter during school hours is indeed secular. But since all Hebrew charters also have religious afterschool programs, protestations like Grayson's that Hatikvah is "hypervigilant about church and state" need to be closely evaluated and not just taken at face value.

The Back Story

HCSC founder and funder, hedge fund demi-billionaire Michael Steinhardt, was pretty clear about his intentions back in 2008.
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 needs. We would be foolish to ignore their potential.” (emphasis mine)
Hard not to notice that when Steinhardt conceived the idea he referenced a nationwide system of "Jewish" charter schools, not "Hebrew" charter schools. And what communal needs can a Jewish Hebrew charter address that private Jewish day schools can not? Why, they can be funded with public tax dollars of course!
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.
(emphasis mine)
Did you catch that? A way to strengthen Jewish identity without the "private and communal expense" of day schools. But it takes a serious influx of cash from the HCSC before each school can reach "self sufficiency" ie., a reliance only on public tax dollars, not private philanthropy.
With its $6 million annual budget and the backing of philanthropist Michael Steinhardt — Berman’s father — HCSC is exploring new locations in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago and New York. The organization spends up to $3 million to open each school and bring it to self-sustainability — that is, running entirely on government money. Neither of its schools has reached that point, but Berman says the Brooklyn school will become self-sustaining for the upcoming school term, its fifth in operation. (emphasis mine)
So, Steinhardt's goal for HCSC charters like Hatikvah is to "strengthen Jewish identity" without the pesky costs to parents or philanthropists, and to ultimately be able to subsist on government funds alone. 

But the one big stumbling block is that Jewish day schools offer both secular and religious educations. So how can Steinhardt get the best of both worlds?

Hatikvah's Religious Afterschool Programs

When Hatikvah was first approved and preparing to open they were very clear that they planned not only to create a religious afterschool program for their students, but to model their program on the Jewish Upbringing Matters Program (JUMP) created by the Ben Gamla Network.
Rabbi Shlomo Landau of Torah Links is looking to starting the after-school JUMP (Jewish Upbringing Matters Program), modeled after a Hollywood, Fla., program that began in 2008 to serve students of the Hebrew-language Ben Gamla Charter School there. The daily after-school Jewish studies curriculum would be open to students of varying backgrounds.
“I have been approached by JUMP to assist in replicating their success in Florida right here in New Jersey,” said Landau. “There has been a lot of interest locally as people follow Hatikvah’s progress.”
Landau also plans to establish a before-school program in East Brunswick, where students will have the opportunity to pray and learn before classes begin, he added. (emphasis mine)
It seems that while Rabbi Landau was getting the JUMP-esque program off the ground, Hatikvah started with a program called Chai Central, which was run by the Chabad of East Brunswick, and heavily funded by the HCSC. 
Members of Chabad, the chasidic sect known for its outreach to liberal and unaffiliated Jews, run Chai Central, the optional after-school Jewish studies program for Hatikvah students. 
So how much did Chabad get to develop and run Chai Central? Let's look at the HCSC 2010 990 to find out.

WOW! $132,000!! And note that the JUMP program in Florida also got $100,000 and Hatikvah itself got almost $250,000.

Chai Central was eventually replaced by the Nefesh Yehudi Academy (NYA) which is run by Rabbi Schlomo Landau, who as previously mentioned, was originally tapped to model Hatikvah's after school program on the Ben Gamla JUMP program.
At the Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick, N.J., a program called Nefesh Yehudi offers students a religious education at a nearby Reform synagogue. 
So let's find out a little more about Nefesh Yehudi.
The mission of Nefesh Yehudi Academy is to provide a Jewish education to complement the curriculum of a Hebrew immersion charter school program, while encouraging students to appreciate the diversity of all Jews. The curriculum, which is guided by Traditional Jewish and Zionist values, includes the study of written and oral Torah, Jewish history and laws, Mitzvot, and prayers. The program prepares our graduates to succeed in a Jewish high school if they so choose. 
Not sure what's up with all the cloak and dagger secrecy, but the name of the charter is not mentioned anywhere on the website, just veiled references to "a Hebrew immersion charter school program." You'll only find specific mention of Hatikvah if you open up the registration form. 
In general, the NYA program follows the schedule of Hatikvah International Academy Charter School (“Hatikvah”). That is NYA programming is held Mondays through Thursdays on days where Hatikvah is in session. The NYA program begins approximately 15 minutes after dismissal from Hatikvah and ends at about 4:40pm on those days. 
And you don't want to miss this curious Q & A in the FAQ section.
9. My child attends public school. Can he/she attend NYA?  
NYA is a distinctive program designed to capitalize on the Hebrew language skills that its students have already acquired through a Hebrew-immersion charter school and to build on that foundation. Most public schools, even ones offering Hebrew classes, do not provide the same sort of Hebrew curriculum that we expect our students to have attained(emphasis mine)
Seems the good folks at NYA need a reminder that a charter school is a public school

But the more troubling implication here is that the religious afterschool program seems to have knowledge of the curriculum offered at the charter, and how to expand upon it, which also seems to mean that the Jewish students that attend the afterschool program may receive curricular advantages and supplements that are not afforded to both the Jewish and non-Jewish students that do not attend NYA.

I also find it curious that NYA held Open Houses that were advertised to the general public in numerous local publications, including the East Brunswick Patch and the East Brunswick Sentinel.
Nefesh Yehudi Academy, which was founded by parents of a Hebrew-immersion charter school and provides students with an after-school Jewish experiential-learning experience, will hold an open house 6-7 p.m. Aug. 19 at Temple B’nai Shalom, Fern Road near Old Stage Road, East Brunswick.
Guests will meet the founding parents, the program director and some staff members.
Children will have a hands-on opportunity to experience the program. There will be tours of the school facilities including classrooms, gym, library, etc.
What's so interesting about this is that, as we have already established, NYA is only for students that attend Hatikvah, so why advertise to the general public? (And again, what's with not identifying Hatikvah by name? What are they trying to hide?) Why not spread the word only to existing Hatikvah families, since they are the only ones that can attend? Sure seems like a way to interest parents in a low cost religious education ($2,625 according the website) and then get them to apply for admission to Hatikvah. 

Interesting way to recruit for a charter school, no?

This practice alone raises serious questions regarding the true intent behind Hatikvah, and also raises doubts as to how "hypervigilant" they really are about the separation of church and state.

Money and Influence

So, we've already established that HCSC bankrolls both the secular Hebrew charter school and the religious after school program. So is it just me, or does a Hebrew charter just seem like a clever way to divide up and try to disguise the true intent, which is to provide an inexpensive Jewish day school education, by subsidizing the secular part of the day school educational experience on the public dime?

What is equally, and perhaps even more concerning is that the HCSC doesn't just give money to Hatikvah and the religious after school program and then step back and allow them to govern the schools independently without interference. There is a surprising amount of direct influence.

This is from Hatikvah's Annual Report:

Clearly, the HCSC plays a large role in the day to day direction of Hatikvah; weekly educational consultants, professional development (PD), experts in Readers and Writers Workshops, support for all Hebrew teachers...

And the HCSC has similar influence over Nefesh Yehudi.
Hatikvah is affiliated with the New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC), which provides financial support and curriculum development assistance to Nefesh Yehudi. 
“It’s a whole new model for Jewish education,” said Rabbi Shlomo Landau, the program’s director. 
Traditional Hebrew schools typically offer only a couple of hours on a Sunday. Nefesh Yehudi gets the kids for nearly two hours every school day except Fridays. With HCSC’s help, the program developed its own curriculum because existing Jewish educational materials were a poor match for children with relatively good Hebrew skills. (emphasis mine)
But what may be more surprising, and even more telling, is that they Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Steinhardt's original philanthropic behemothhas very direct control and influence over Hatikvah. 

Here's a little bit about the Steinhardt Foundation.

Our philanthropy seeks to revitalize Jewish identity through educational and cultural initiatives that reach out to all Jews, with an emphasis on those who are on the margins of Jewish life, as well as to advocate for and support Hebrew and Jewish literacy among the general population.
In fact, The Steinhardt Foundation seems to have some remarkably direct, remarkably significant influence over Hatikvah's governance, in the form of an individual by the name of Eli Schaap, the Steinhardt Foundation's Director of Education and Research

Eli Schaap; Where Private Philanthropy Meets Public Governance

Schaap just so happens to be a voting member of Hatikvah's Board of Directors, where he serves as the chair of the Finance Committee, and he is also the President of the Friends of Hatikvah International Academy Charter School, Inc., the nonprofit created to raise money for and distribute money to Hatikvah. 

In 2011, HCSC stopped giving money to Hatikvah directly, and started funneling it through the Friends of Hatikvah, so it seems Schaap controls the money at virtually all points.

And in case you think I am jumping to conclusions, Schaap's resume, submitted as part of Hatikvah's 2011-12 Annual Report, makes it clear that the roles he plays in the various HCSC network charters, including Hatikvah, and within the HCSC itself, is actually part of his job responsibilities for the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. 

And Schaap is paid handsomely for his work for Steinhardt. According to the 2011 990, he made $196,198.

Not sure how much clearer it could be that the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, whose goal is to "revitalize Jewish identity through educational and cultural initiatives that reach out to all Jews", has tremendous influence over the HCSC and the supposedly "secular" Hebrew charter schools they fund and support, such as Hatikvah.

The Takeaway

Diane Ravitch recently wrote an incredibly pointed blog post about Hebrew Charters.
What’s wrong with Hebrew charter schools?
It violates the long-established principle of separation of church and state to spend public funds on an institution that promotes religion. Hebrew is not a neutral language. It is the historic language of the Jewish people. Judaism is a religion.
It asks taxpayers to bear responsibility for schools that are essentially religious. In effect, taxpayers are subsidizing families that have the freedom to choose a nonpublic religious school. If they want it, they should pay for it. Public responsibility is for public, secular schools.
No matter how the folks at Hatikvah, the Hebrew Charter School Center, or the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life try to spin the "non sectarian identity" of Hebrew charters, a closer look at the money trail and the direct involvement of Steinhardt's philanthropic organizations in all aspects of Hatikvah's financial affairs, and both the secular and religious components of Hatikvah's educational programs, seems to defy such protestations.

Seems like something Commissioner Cerf should consider when deciding whether to allow Hatikvah to expand, and something his successor should consider when he/she conducts Hatikvah's next annual review.

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