Religion & Jewish Life

Hebrew charter schools spread, but some face setbacks

(N.Y. Jewish Week) — The emergence of Hebrew charter schools — publicly funded schools that teach Hebrew language and aspects of Jewish culture — has been a controversial development in recent years. Required by law to be open to all regardless of religion or ethnicity, and prohibited from promoting religion, the tuition-free schools nonetheless have drawn scrutiny from church-state watchdogs, as well as Jewish leaders concerned that they could draw students away from Jewish day schools.

Plus, with a variety of organizers, sponsors and agendas, not all of whom agree on the definition of “Hebrew charter school,” the field is diverse. Here are some of the latest developments from this fast-moving field.

Hatikvah International Academy Charter School, a Hebrew charter school in East Brunswick, N.J., is midway through its second year of operation, with enrollment at 152 students this year and a wait list for next year. However, the school, which like all charter schools is tuition-free, publicly funded, open to all regardless of religion or ethnicity, and legally prohibited from promoting religion, continues to face legal challenges.

One of two Hebrew charter schools nationally to have opened with assistance from the New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center (the other is Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn), Hatikvah has filed a New Jersey Public Record request to find out how much the East Brunswick school board has spent attempting to close the charter school.

While the New Jersey Supreme Court Appellate Division and the state’s education commissioners have ruled in the charter school’s favor, the school board has announced it plans to continue to appeal.

“Voters deserve to know how much in taxpayer money is being wasted on legal fees for baseless case,” says a news release issued by the HCSC. The attorney for the East Brunswick school board did not respond to a Jewish Week request for comment.

In nearby Highland Park, New Brunswick and Edison, N.J., another would-be Hebrew charter school — this one without the backing of the HCSC — is spurring grass-roots opposition. Tikun Olam, which would be a high school, won a $600,000 federal start-up grant this fall, even as its charter applications to the state have been rejected four times (the latest rejection was announced Jan. 27). Inaccurate material in its applications, including false claims of support from various public officials, have drawn public scrutiny, including a column earlier this month in The New York Times.