Friday, August 31, 2007

In Uncharted Waters

Born out of frustration with conventional public schools and barely out of infancy, the charter school movement is already enmeshed in grown-up controversy, ranging from accountability and curriculum to the key question of whether this new arrangement makes much of a difference in student performance. As with other educational reforms, the argument is between those who are wedded to the traditional structure of public education and who therefore fight to maintain the status quo and those who believe that without new structural arrangements, there is little hope for meaningful improvement. Public school supporters claim that charter schools have yielded little benefit, while the advocates of charter schools claim that they have.

The argument will continue, with inconclusive results. As with school vouchers, statistics will be produced by each side and we will be treated to a procession of numbers’ games. Likely, charter schools will turn out to be a mixed bag, with success stories and also evidence of failure. Much will depend on leadership. Already, more than a few recently crafted charters are no more. The prospect is that the number in operation will increase significantly because there is a long line of those wanting to get into the act and their ambition is buttressed by continued evidence of public school failure, despite huge increases in governmental funding.

I imagine that for a long while, the charter school concept will continue to operate in uncharted waters.

Even more uncharted is how the approach may be adapted to the needs of particular ethnic groups, including those with a religious orientation. This is a thorny and tricky subject, if only because charters must have open admissions. Those under religious sponsorship have the additional burden of complying with church-state strictures.

I have been asked why as a strong advocate of day schools I have not jumped on the charter school bandwagon. The question is odd. It should be obvious that a religious day school and a charter school are substantially different entities. Presumably, those who want to exploit the availability of charters believe that the arrangement offers a solution to the two most serious issues confronting day schools, they being the high and steadily increasing tuition charges and, secondly, the unwillingness of many parents who are Jewishly involved but not Orthodox to send their children to a religious day school. In the event, I have always responded that those who think that the charter concept is the way to go should pursue that approach.

Peter Deutsch, a former congressman from Florida who is an observant Jew, is an ardent charterist. He has opened in Broward County in his home state the first of what he hopes will be a national network of Hebrew language charters to be called Ben Gamla schools, after the High Priest in the Second Temple period who decreed that it is obligatory to establish in each locality schools that provide a basic religious education for Jewish youth. The name is ironic, perhaps anomalous, because Ben Gamla ruled that such schools are a communal responsibility, whereas Mr. Deutsch and other Jewish charter advocates want the government to foot the bill.

The greater problem is that if the burden is placed on government, the institution can scarcely resemble a day school, even those whose Judaic mission is greatly diluted. To ensure that the first Ben Gamla in Florida does not stray even slightly onto a religious Jewish path, the school is being scrutinized by an army of watchdogs, including the ever-alert guardians of the Constitution, public education officials and Jewish church-state vigilantes.

In a new demonstration that things Jewish are placed under a microscope, the New York Times has just published a long front-page feature article on Ben Gamla. There are, we are told, 350 charters in Florida and several thousand more nationwide. Only one is under Jewish sponsorship and that is the one that the Times focuses on. I know that there are Jewish children of all ages who believe that media attention is a form of flattery and should be welcomed. There is little hope of a cure for this infantilism.

It will be interesting to see how Ben Gamla fares down the road. What we have seen thus far is discouraging. Notice of its opening attracted an enormous pool of applicants, many not Jewish. Citing statistics provided by school officials, the Times reports that 20% of the first year enrollment comes from local day schools. My information, which I regard as more trustworthy, is that the figure is substantially higher, which accounts for the fierce opposition that Ben Gamla has encountered from local day schools.

There is a strong possibility that if Mr. Deutsch goes forward with his ambitious expansion plans, the result will be that large enrollment losses at existing day schools will force a number of them to close. This is a powerful consideration in Broward County where overcrowding in public schools and their reputation as weak education providers have contributed to sharp enrollment increases in Jewish schools. Likely, parents of no more than marginal religiosity will reason that the option of tuition-free charter schools is preferable over high-tuition day schools.

The case for Jewish charters would be stronger if linkages were established with Jewish day schools, providing a religious course of study on day school premises for charter school enrollees who want a meaningful religious education. From the look of things at Ben Gamla and day schools that have explored the charter option elsewhere, this does not seem to be in the offing.

The situation requires monitoring and we are sure to get it in abundance. It is hard to avoid the conclusion at this juncture that charter schools are not the solution to the difficult issues confronting the day school world. Greater support for day schools is the solution.