Pandora's Cultural Charter School Box has been opened - and that is not bad

Four years ago an Arabic charter school opened in Minnesota. It is successful. So is the Hmong charter school in Minnesota and so is the Chinese charter school in Minnesota.

The Arabic charter school in Brooklyn will succeed and so will the Hebrew charter school in Florida.

The Pandora's Cultural Charter School box has been opened. Republicans support them because they want to remove government from all our institutions. Democrats support them because they are progressive ways to use government funding and guidance.

By the time either side discovers what Charter Schools are all about it will be too late to put them back in the box.

So kiss the public school melting pot goodbye....

Forward editor, Nathaniel Popper, discusses many of the issues in the Wall Street Journal blog:
HOUSES OF WORSHIP: Chartering a New Course
Do culture-themed public schools cross a legal line?

When the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy opened four years ago in suburban Minneapolis, the school was a bold experiment and its survival was in question. There was the scramble to attract students that any charter school faces, but Tarek ibn Ziyad had the additional worry of a constitutional challenge, given the school's sponsorship by a nonprofit called Islamic Relief and the curriculum's emphasis on Muslim culture and the Arabic language.

The school has not only survived but thrived, and there are plans for local expansion. Perhaps the surest sign that the experiment worked came last week, when a new charter school opened up thousands of miles away in Hollywood, Fla.--founded by Jewish parents, Ben Gamla Charter School has kosher food in the cafeteria and Hebrew posters in the classrooms. In the planning of the Florida school, Tarek ibn Ziyad's experience was taken into account.

The success of Tarek ibn Ziyad's model, and its adoption outside of Minnesota, heralds a potentially explosive new trend in America's charter schools: publicly funded schools tied to a particular religion. The founders of Ben Gamla are already promising more branches in other states, and parents from other religions are sure to venture into similar territory, pushing the constitutional limits even further. As Peter Deutsch, the Orthodox Jewish congressman who started Ben Gamla, has said, it "could be a huge paradigm shift in education in America."

To be clear, both Ben Gamla and Tarek ibn Ziyad have worked to ensure that their actual curricula have no discussion of religious doctrine. Their language classes have been carefully scrubbed of any mention of God--and in Ben Gamla's case, Hebrew classes were suspended after state inspectors found a few questionable lines remaining. (The matter will be taken up at the next school board meeting in September.)

Aware of the constitutional questions, Ben Gamla goes to great lengths to avoid ever using the word "Jewish" to describe the motivation behind its creation. Tarek ibn Ziyad similarly steers clear of the word "Muslim"; its mission statement says that students learn Arabic because it is the "language of culture that holds together the peoples of the Middle East, South Asia, North Africa and East Africa."

The schools can make a strong claim to being only the latest in a string of culturally specific public schools that have been set up during the past decade, most of which provide language immersion alongside a normal secular education. This week a German-culture charter school opened in Alaska, while Minnesota, the charter-school innovator, has one school for Hmong culture and another for Chinese.

The most famous such school of late is the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, which aims to create a student body fluent in Arabic. Even before its opening on Sept. 4, Khalil Gibran has been accused of being a front for Islamists. But unlike the charter schools, this one was not set up by religious parents. It is a creation of the New York City Department of Education with input from Arab-Americans, and initial signs indicate that it will be attended by few Muslims.

There have been others, though, that blur the boundaries between religion and culture a bit more. In New York, a Greek charter school was set up in the same building as a Greek Orthodox parochial school. In Minnesota, the Eci' Nompa Woonspe' charter school is dedicated to teaching Dakota culture, which has a religious component that would be difficult to excise.

In this educational landscape, Ben Gamla and Tarek ibn Zayid are, in one sense, merely the furthest along a spectrum, but they are entering legitimately new territory. Both schools, for instance, have religiously mandated food in the cafeteria and both have executive directors who are also spiritual leaders--in Florida, an Orthodox rabbi; in Minnesota, an imam who has called himself a "Quran thumper." It is no coincidence that Ben Gamla is the first charter school to retain legal counsel from the Becket Fund, an organization defending religious freedom.

If the schools face some backlash--particularly in the Jewish community, which has always been an ardent defender of church-state separation--precedent suggests that they would likely stand on firm legal ground in court. "Religious Charter Schools," a book that had a timely publication date earlier this summer, argues that while a publicly funded school cannot endorse one religion, the courts have granted schools a wide latitude in accommodating religion.

The book's author, Lawrence Weinberg, says that for many religious parents the most important part of a religious school is what it does not teach, and charter schools are allowed the privilege of excluding Harry Potter books if they offend Christian sensibilities. On the other side of the coin, public schools have always been able to range widely over the culture and history (as opposed to the theology) of any religion.

"Charter schools offer parents an opportunity to create schools that meet their needs," said Mr. Weinberg, "and religious needs are some of the most profound and important needs that people have."

The most trenchant criticism of the new schools may be that they are part of an unhealthy atomization of American culture. But there's nothing illegal about that. So, the natural question is, what comes next? Not too surprisingly, the most concrete planning has been within the Jewish community, where culture and religion dovetail the most seamlessly.

Kevin Hasson, the Irish-American founder of the Becket Fund, says he would like to see an Irish school that touches upon the country's Catholic tradition and religious wars. "Only Jews have approached us for now," Mr. Hasson said, "but I believe there is no reason in the world to limit it to that."

1 comment:

posttimestribune said...

The school is Brooklyn is not a charter school.