August 24, 2010
How Jewish are Hebrew charter schools?
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New Community Jewish High School principal Powell believes the best way to strengthen Jewish identity is not through Hebrew charters but by strengthening day schools like his own. He pointed out that the Jim Joseph Foundation, which funds Jewish education, recently allocated a total of $12 million over six years in grants to five Los Angeles-area day schools (including New Community Jewish High School and Milken) in an effort to help the schools build their endowments. (The Jim Joseph Foundation was invited to join Steinhardt and others in supporting the Areivim group that funds Hebrew-language charter schools, but declined, according to the foundation’s president, Alvin Levitt. They are not considering supporting Hebrew charters at this time.)
For now, neither Powell nor the Milken school’s Ablin know of any families who considered enrolling in their schools but opted instead to send their children to Einstein. Both schools are about 25 miles from Einstein, so distance might be a factor — although Blazer said that 20 students (or 10 percent of Einstein’s student body) had signed up for a daily bus from the San Fernando Valley.
A better indication of the impact Hebrew charters might have on Jewish day schools might be found in the experience of East Midwood Hebrew Day School, a Solomon Schechter elementary school about one mile from the Hebrew Language Academy in Brooklyn. “The first year, I believe it had an impact on our enrollment,” Executive Director Eugene Miller said. “We lost about eight families to the Hebrew charter school, a couple of which came back. This year, our kindergarten class has grown by about 30 percent. That says to me that the charter school has become more clearly defined as a public school that is offering Hebrew and not a tuition-free Hebrew day school, and I think that there was some confusion about that.”
The debate over Hebrew-language charter schools has been going on mostly within in the Jewish community. But the funding of these schools raises much broader — and equally important — questions about charter schools, school choice and the role of publicly funded education.
Part of this involves charter schools competing with private schools. “In the independent-school world in general,” Ablin said, “there’s a feeling of significant challenge from the charter school movement, because they are marketing themselves specifically to [families who would otherwise send their children to] independent schools.”
Einstein Academy is no exception. “The Albert Einstein Academy fuses the best of public school — which is really the fact that it doesn’t cost any money — with the best of private school,” Blazer said to a room full of parents at an information night in July.
Then he noted the school’s tax-deductible status and asked parents to donate. “It’s an investment in your child,” he said.
Parents collectively have donated almost $100,000 to Einstein in 2010 (Blazer hopes to reach $200,000 by the end of the year), and many have volunteered their time. Blazer acknowledged that the school will need “some major funds” for its first few years but was emphatic when he said the school “is not going to be built on the backs of the families.” He said he will announce two major gifts, one from a philanthropist “who is totally outside of our community.”
All of these charter schools spend more per pupil than they get from public funding. Einstein plans to spend approximately $10,000 per pupil this year, $8,000 of which comes from the state. (“We’re spending $30,000 on computers,” Blazer said. “That’s our choice.”) Schools like the one in Brooklyn that require two teachers in each classroom rely on philanthropic donations — and the HCSC expects to award just over $1 million in grants to the Hebrew Language Academy and the schools modeled after it this coming year.
That might be good news for the students attending these schools, but it has real implications for local school districts. Every student who opts to attend a charter instead of a neighborhood public school takes his funding with him to the charter. And for school districts facing fiscal austerity, every dollar lost makes an impact.
The public high schools in Santa Clarita’s Hart district will be funded this year at $5,671 per student. The district, which is responsible for educating about 23,000 pupils, had to cut $15 million to balance the coming year’s operating budget. They have eliminated more than 40 support positions and are in negotiations with teachers over a proposal to shorten the school year by four days.
“At this point, we don’t have an educational foundation,” Engbrecht said, speaking of the nonprofit organizations that some school districts have established to allow individuals to make tax-deductible donations to public schools. “Although it’s something that we might be exploring in the future.”
The jury will be out for some time on schools like the one in Brooklyn and the one in Santa Clarita. But Blazer, for his part, is betting on Einstein. His daughter will be entering the school as a ninth-grader, which will put her in the school’s first graduating class. That’s as good a testament as any to his confidence in the new school.