[lg policy] The Promise and Costs of Charters (especially bilingual ones)

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Thu Mar 10 16:16:53 UTC 2011

The Promise and Costs of Charters


In a perfect world of unlimited resources, it’s possible, though hardly
certain, that this small, diverse, generally liberal borough on the banks of
the Raritan River might want to become a host to the nation’s first
Hebrew-language public high school. But in the imperfect world of public
education today, the idea of diverting diminishing resources from existing
schools for the proposed Tikun Olam Charter High School would seem to be
dead on arrival if local school officials got to choose or local residents
got to vote on it.

In fact, local officials don’t get to choose and local residents don’t get
to vote, so you can find a compelling microcosm of the issues beneath the
glossy promise of charter schools in the increasingly testy politics of
public choice in one New Jersey community. Officials were skeptical three
years ago when Sharon Akman, a real estate agent who has sent four children
to Jewish day schools, proposed the local schools start teaching Hebrew.
That is an idea increasingly being promoted nationally, with both strong
proponents and financial backing, along with many skeptics, including
critics who view such schools as quasi-religious and some religious Jews who
view them as a threat to Jewish day schools.

Whatever the larger issues, at a time of brutal budget realities, Ms.
Akman’s proposal was turned down. Undeterred, she put together a proposal
for a charter school, a decision to be made in Trenton, not Highland Park.
It has been turned down twice, but she is preparing to file a third proposal
due at the end of this month. She said a similar proposal in Englewood and
Teaneck was turned down three times before being approved in January as the
state’s second Hebrew-immersion charter.

She said that the charter serving Highland Park, Edison and New Brunswick
would be about language, not religion, and that it would provide a
distinctive education model that would help students in gaining college
admissions. “It’s getting harder and harder to get into college, so it’s
essential these kids have something identifying them in some kind of unique
way,” she said. “Coming from a Hebrew-language school that stresses
community service is going to give them an edge.” Ms. Akman said she would
have sent her children to public schools if a similar option existed.

Given Gov. Chris Christie’s often-stated desire for more charters, sooner
rather than later, school officials and many parents are concerned. The
Highland Park school board president, Wendy Saiff, said the expansion of
charters came at the expense of existing schools.DISTRICTS must pay for
students who attend local charters. Four local students who had attended
private schools now attend the Hatikvah International Academy, an elementary
school that opened last year in East Brunswick, at a cost of about $60,000
to Highland Park. The district has been told by the state to expect to pay
$300,000 next year for students at Hatikvah and another charter, money lost
to existing programs with no cost savings.

“It would divert funds out of the public schools for the interests of a
small group of people,” Ms. Saiff said. “It could be a group that wants
Mandarin, or Swahili or a cooking program. You could think of a thousand
programs that might serve a small group, but it’s preposterous to think
that’s serving the public good, and economically it’s just not sustainable.”

One possible compromise is another new wrinkle — becoming a choice district
that could offer its own Hebrew program in existing schools. So at an
agitated school board meeting Monday night, parents angrily debated the
merits of financing a Hebrew program they do not want to ward off a Hebrew
charter they really do not want.

You can pick your ironies. Charters are supposed to provide alternatives to
failing schools, but Highland Park’s are considered among the best in the
state. And New Jersey’s schools, for all the well-documented failings in
places like Newark, score near the top of national rankings, so new charters
are being asked to fix what’s broken and what’s not. The process being
championed by conservatives like Mr. Christie, whose children attend private
schools, is taking decisions from local districts and giving them to the

Charters may offer new promise, particularly in failing urban schools, but
when it comes to paying for them, it’s the old story.
We all want more, not less. We just don’t want to pay for it.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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