Hebrew Charter Schools Are Expanding: Popular, but at What Price?

Parents seem happy with these privately run, publicly funded schools where children learn Hebrew, but they also create controversy and tension.

NEW YORK – Abigail Feder-Kane’s 7-year-old son, Zachariah, started first grade at Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School a couple of weeks ago. And he’s having a great time, reports his mother, who first looked into Jewish day schools. Then a rabbi she knows suggested checking out the new Hebrew charter school. Since it’s publicly funded it has to be secular, so the emphasis is on the Hebrew language and Israeli culture, not Judaism.

It’s the second New York school in the Hebrew Charter School Center network, which this spring offered tours of its Brooklyn school.

Seeing the diversity — 37 percent of students at the Brooklyn Hebrew Language Academy Charter School are African-American, while 53 percent are white, according to the Inside Schools website — and learning about its differentiated learning approach sold Feder-Kane. In a city where there seem to perennially be far fewer seats in good public schools than there are students who need them, her son is thriving at Harlem Hebrew, she said.

Like the rest of the growing number of charter schools in New York City (currently 183, according to the city’s Department of Education) and across the United States, Harlem Hebrew is free, privately run, funded both by tax dollars and private philanthropy and, unlike public schools, has a nonunionized staff.

Harlem Hebrew is one of five schools in the HCSC network. Three of them opened this fall and several more are in development around the country.

The organization has spent about $14 million on the effort since it was founded in 2009, backed by mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, said Rabbi David Gedzelman, an officer of the charter center and executive vice president of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.

“So far we have leveraged $14 million over the past five years to get five schools up and running, with a sixth school opening in Los Angeles next year, while building the foundation and capacity to reach our goal of creating a total of 20 schools across the country,” said Dan Gerstein, a spokesman for HCSC, in a statement. “We consider that a fantastic value in creating a whole new reality for Hebrew education in America, especially given [that] other platforms for delivering Hebrew education are far more costly.”

This year the Brooklyn school, which opened in 2009, is running solely on the per-pupil state allocation and is no longer reliant on philanthropy, said the chairwoman of HCSC, Sara Berman.

Berman, Steinhardt’s daughter, also chairs the board of trustees of both the Harlem and the Brooklyn Hebrew charter schools. Gedzelman also sits on the board of both schools. A new school opened in East Brunswick, New Jersey last year, and this year the HCSC opened schools in San Diego and in Washington, D.C. One is planned in Los Angeles for next year, with schools in Philadelphia and Atlanta slated to open in 2015. In addition, Berman said, a second Brooklyn school is in the works, as is a school in Queens.

The charter schools offer Hebrew language immersion, smaller class sizes than most public schools and two teachers per classroom rather than one, said Berman. At the same time, they typically receive just 70 to 80 percent of what a standard public school gets from the state, she said. How do they manage to offer more with less money (not counting the philanthropic funding, which goes toward startup costs and teacher training)? “We run it like we run a business,” Berman said. “We pay competitive salaries but don’t pay pensions the way unions pay pensions. I wish there was a better sense of indignation on the part of parents” that tax dollars aren’t more efficiently used, she said.

Because they represent potential cost savings and, at least in theory, greater accountability, the federal Department of Education is emphasizing funding charter schools, said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College.

Their growth is prompting conflicts nationwide, between the wealthy funders and founders of the new endeavors and school districts that lose money when funds are allocated to charters.

There are conflicts between the charter schools’ founders and local municipalities, over zoning and other issues, and in New York City there is also tension over charter schools’ colocating inside existing schools, which puts more pressure on already-strained resources. In addition, parents often object to the idea of a privately-run school with different policies using the facilities of the regular public schools.

Backlash prevented the Brooklyn Hebrew charter school from opening inside a public junior high in Marine Park, space it would have received for free from the Department of Education, said one source. In 2009 “there was a scandalous hearing, an anti-Semitic hissy fit. It wouldn’t have been a good idea to put our kids in there. The school was going to make it a nightmare,” said the source.

Instead, the Brooklyn Hebrew charter school rents space from private developers. Both of the New York schools are currently housed in former Catholic schools. The Brooklyn school is applying to renew its elementary-school charter and to expand through the eighth grade, Berman said. Harlem Hebrew, too, will eventually outgrow its current location, according to one parent at the school.

Critics challenge the idea that the Hebrew language and Israeli culture can be separated from Judaism. Florida’s four Ben Gamla charter schools are being investigated by local school officials for possible violations of a state law requiring them to be nonsectarian. The probe was prompted by a complaint after Ben Gamla founder Peter Deutsch said, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, that he feels most of the school network’s $10 million annual budget serves Jewish communal purposes.

The charter school movement is “a form of privatization of public education,” said education scholar and policy analyst Diane Ravitch, who was assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush.

“The end result is to destroy public education,” Ravitch told Haaretz. “The free public school is a cornerstone of our democracy. One of the elements of rise of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants is to have everyone in public schools with no admissions requirements, without having a lottery,” which is the usual way children are admitted to charter schools, Ravitch said.

Ravitch is a research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture Education and Human Development, whose latest book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools” (Knopf) will be released next week.

She also noted that vociferous opposition to the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a public school in Brooklyn focusing on the Arabic language and Arab culture that opened in 2007, was led by The New York Sun. Michael Steinhardt and Roger Hertog, a financier and conservative philanthropist, were among the backers of the now-defunct conservative newspaper; it featured the neoconservative columnist Daniel Pipes, who referred to it a madrassa (Muslim school).

Pipes led the charge against Khalil Gibran’s founding principal, Debbie Almontaser. She resigned under pressure, and the school has been struggling ever since. Hertog gives money to HCSC, Berman said.

“There was quite a debate about whether there should be an Arab school … Khalil Gibran has disappeared,” Ravitch said, while “the Hebrew language schools are just slipping under the radar.”

The Brooklyn Hebrew charter school, whose classrooms are named for Israeli cities, appears to be a raging success: There were 600 applicants for its 75 available kindergarten spots, Berman said.

And though it’s early yet, several parents of students at Harlem Hebrew who were interviewed by Haaretz said they were happy with the school. The father of a pair of twins in first grade said his family chose Harlem Hebrew because “We have three kids and Jewish day school is really out of our price range.” In addition, he said, the family didn’t like the idea of their children going to an all-Jewish school.

“We’d like them to have a more diverse set of friends, some Jewish friends but not exclusively,” said the father, who lives in Harlem and asked not to be named because he works for an education services company. “When you go pick kids up there are a broad array, people in Muslim headscarves, black and white people, some are wearing yarmulkes. It looks like New York.”

Feder-Kane, who lives in the largely Hispanic Washington Heights neighborhood, said most of the families at her son’s bus stop speak Spanish at home. She praised Harlem Hebrew’s communication with parents and focus on assessing how students are learning. “That kind of attention is rare in a public school and very valuable whether or not Hebrew is the focus.”

“I am a great believer in public education,” she said. “I wasn’t going to put that belief before what I thought was best for my kid, but it’s incredibly exciting to have a public option that we feel so good about.”

Courtesy Hebrew Language Academy
Courtesy Hebrew Language Academy