Sunday, July 13, 2008

RJJ Newsletter - Charter Schools

Charter schools are now the rage in education. Thousands have been established in the recent period and many more are on the way. The hope – and, for sponsors, the expectation – is that these publicly-funded institutions will do a better job than conventional public schools which in turn will be impelled to improve because of the competition they face. This is a nice theory and like other ideas that promise educational or social reform, the reality is complicated and achievements fall somewhat short of expectations. The record so far for charter schools is uneven and quite a few have already closed, yet there is evidence that overall they perform better than the competition. This isn’t surprising because charters have the advantage of relative smallness and a sense of mission, particularly those that focus on discrete groups.

In accordance with an iron law of Jewish life, wherever we live as a minority among other people, sooner or later we Jews are certain to join the parade. There is a nascent Jewish charter school movement, which consists of much talk, little action and a great deal of media attention. So far, there is one such charter, it being the Ben Gamla school in South Florida which opened last September to much fanfare and scrutiny. There will be others, but overall the Jewish or, more accurately, Hebrew variety will remain no more than a drop in the charter school bucket.

Because of church-state considerations, a Jewish charter is constitutionally not kosher, no more than a Catholic charter school would pass muster. Accordingly, any that have our label will specialize in teaching Hebrew, perhaps both as a separate language and in connection with certain academic subjects. As a public institution, admission will be open to all and while the Hebrew angle will be a disincentive for many non-Jews, it is a good bet that a fair number of such students will be enrolled, maybe because their parents believe that anything with a Jewish label is likely to be superior.

At Ben Gamla, there is an optional after-school component that is privately funded and teaches Judaic subjects. How this can improve over the familiar supplementary school or Talmud Torah model that is almost universally regarded as a failure is an interesting question that does not deter the Jewish charter school advocates. They give us a new recipe for failure that is being marketed as having the capacity to accomplish what is beyond its reach. Of note, when Ben Gamla opened its doors, two-thirds of the students attended the after-school program; half of these dropped out as the school year progressed.

Why all of the Jewish charter school hoopla? Part of the answer is that we are joining a much applauded bandwagon, a movement that is the new kid on the education block, has momentum and is attention-grabbing. As with start-up companies whose stock soars even though there are no earnings to speak of, a Jewish charter has the enormous advantage of having a virtually non-existent track record. If a new charter attracts three-hundred students in its first year, about Ben Gamla’s number, there is reason to celebrate and the celebration is scarcely dampened by evidence that a considerable number of enrollees transferred out of a Jewish day school, meaning that they are now receiving an inferior Jewish education than previously and also that the schools they left are now on shakier ground because of their enrollment decline.

As American Jewish losses have mounted, with many already having chucked off any sense of Jewish identity and many others headed in the same direction, we have become at once desperate and creative in devising minimalistic Jewish activity that we claim or hope will impel some who are moving away to remain in our fold. In the process, we cast aside as immaterial the argument that this approach is certain to fail. Paradoxically, the weaker the activity is from a Jewish standpoint, the more fervently we embrace it. We are desperate and desperate people are willing to try anything. To be sure, charter schools are not the weakest in our current array of activities.

The best argument for Jewish charters is that only a small proportion of children in non-Orthodox homes are in a day school. True enough, but why make the percentage even lower? The issue is further enmeshed in the tuition crisis that is a reality for most day school families. As tuition rises, the charter option becomes more attractive, especially in places like South Florida where there is an abundance of ex-Israeli families.

While the debate over charters seems to involve the Orthodox only tangentially because overwhelmingly they must adhere to the yeshiva/day school model, the Orthodox community does have a stake in the development of charter schools. There was a time when the Orthodox and notably what is referred to as the yeshiva world felt a strong sense of responsibility for the religious education of children in marginally Jewish homes. There was a linkage between Torah education and kiruv and we established and helped to sustain schools that were aimed at families with children who would not fit in an ordinary yeshiva setting.

This is no longer the case. We continue to talk a good game about the paramount importance of day school education, but it is nearly all talk without corresponding activity. Enrollment at schools with an immigrant or outreach population has declined enormously and this process is continuing.

The notion that kiruv can be effective without sufficient day school opportunities for the families that are being reached out to is astounding and in a sense is a form of heresy. The responsibility for what we are not doing must be attributed to our Torah leaders. They preach about day schools and basic Torah education but they are absent without leave as they direct their energies and influence elsewhere. As I have pointed out, they work mightily to promote basic Torah education in Israel, which of course is praiseworthy, but they then neglect the obligation to do so in their own backyards.

It isn’t surprising then that charter schools have gained momentum or that many believe that charter schools and not day schools are the wave of the future.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Our Money Tzoros

As the economic clouds darken further, it is apparent that we are not in the midst of a cyclical downturn of the kind that comes around every decade or so but in for something that is far more serious. The news is ominous, extending beyond steep declines in financial markets and housing, the two familiar barometers of economic health. Banks have experienced staggering losses and the stunning increases in the price of oil and other key commodities are developments that will retard any easy or early recovery. We are beset by severe inflation at a time when nearly all financial indicators are going south. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.

There are places that seem oblivious to the bad news, such as legislative bodies across the nation which appropriate money that they do not have and cannot print. They have gotten away with such political expediency because economic recovery has replenished governmental coffers. The panderers may be in for a rude awakening this time around.

Jewish communal life is feeling the pinch and this obviously is true generally of the nonprofit world. The nonprofits that have nurtured a sufficient endowment should weather the storm. Those that depend entirely on fundraising, often with some governmental largesse thrown in for good measure, will experience rough sledding. Federations are already howling in pain and there is talk of staff and service cutbacks. This newspaper reported last week the decision to close NYANA, an agency with a good record of assistance to Jewish refugees and immigrants. Other organizations and projects may follow suit.

For American Jewry there is the corollary unsettling development in the startling 25% decline of the dollar against the shekel, a decline that translates into a sharp drop in what Israeli causes are receiving. There is a steadily rising chorus of wailing and lamentations from the Holy Land. While we must be concerned about the financial stability of Israeli institutions, it’s time to recognize that although there are many poor Israelis, Israel is no longer a poor country and its government should invest far more than it now does in the social and economic infrastructures. It deserves mentioning also that the dollar’s decline inevitably means that a greater number of dollars are flowing into Israel.

Instead of kvetching about the sharp economic downturn, we ought to ponder what adjustments are needed to align our commitments and activities with available resources. The bad news may be what is needed to jolt us out of our complacency, out of our inertial mindset. We just might assess whether all of the organizations on our communal landscape are needed. This isn’t an easy challenge even with the impetus provided by financial shortfalls because it is in the nature of organizations and their machers to soldier on even if what they are attempting to achieve is relatively meaningless.

I imagine that nationally and locally we can lop off several hundred organizations, agencies and projects without their disappearance negatively affecting the character of American Jewry. Most do very little and the little they do can be absorbed by the survivors. This isn’t going to happen anytime soon, although if fundraising nosedives, necessity may be the mother of invention.

Whatever the fate of organizations, hopefully we will rein in our ravenous appetite for collateral activities, including a packed agenda of conventions and conferences, meaningless research and reports and the reliance on a huge cohort of experts and consultants who have responsibility for nothing and whose bank accounts are fattened when they are hired to tell those who do have responsibility how to do a better job.

It is impossible to estimate how much our conferencing costs. The certain figure is way above $100 million annually and it is climbing rapidly. In fact, Israel’s appetite matches ours, as there is a steady parade of such events, including many in academic settings that deal with arcane subjects or those that have already been discussed endlessly. It was recently reported that the world Jewish conference convened by President Shimon Peres cost $17 million, an astounding figure even if it includes preparatory work and follow-up. I haven’t seen a single comment questioning the extravagance.

Then there is the cosmetic activity, the quickie research that scarcely anyone pays attention to and the reports that are dead on arrival. We now have an army of academics and former functionaries who understand that the grass is greener when pseudo-expertise is being marketed. Intended or not, their enterprise is exploitative, if not cynical.

I fear that the brunt of any hardships resulting from financial constraint will be most felt in places where we can least afford to cut back, primarily in day schools and activities aimed at enhancing Jewish commitment. I expect that if the choice is between support of what goes on in school and support of an educational conference, the latter will win out. We love to feed what is inconsequential and the proof is in the roster of Jewish educational conferences.

Our economic life operates not merely at the communal level but importantly consists of hundreds of thousands of stories, of how people fare in the job market and how families cope and what they cut back when they face financial hardship. In view of the high cost of day school education, there is the prospect that we will see a drop in enrollment in those sectors for whom a day school education is as much an option as it is a religious obligation. There is, in short, much to be fearful about.