Charter Schools: The Best Way To Destroy Your Community

January 16, 2013

There is a heck of a fight brewing in East Brunswick, NJ, over a "Hebrew immersion" charter that wants to move to an industrialized zone some residents say is inappropriate for a school. The school, Hatikvah, was granted a variance by the local zoning board, but that was overturned by the township council.

Supporters of the school say the fight isn't really about zoning; it's about whether the school itself should exist. They probably have a point, but so what? Even though the school drains local resources, many of its students don't live in town, and residents never had a say in its approval anyway.

Darcie Cimarusti, the Mother Crusader, has more:

Case in point, Hatikvah International Academy Charter School. Hatikvah was approved in 2009 and opened in 2010, amidst a legal challenge from the East Brunswick School District claiming that Hatikvah didn't reach 90% enrollment, as required under New Jersey's charter school law.  Ultimately Hatikvah's approval was upheld.

But it wasn't just the East Brunswick district that was concerned about the effect Hatikvah would have on the public schools.  Leaders in the Jewish community were equally if not more concernedabout the impact on local religious schools, already struggling in a bad economy.

Current enrollment numbers from October 15, 2012, show that Hatikvah does not come close to enrolling 90% of it's students from East Brunswick, the only district the school was actually approved to serve.  In fact, only 57% of the students at Hatikvah are presently from East Brunswick, and the other 43% are drawn from 17 neighboring towns.  One of the districts, Toms River, is 49 miles away! 

Honestly, how does this make any sense? Is it so critical to offer students Hebrew immersion that they need to be carted all over the state to get it?

Only 110 of their 194 students are from East Brunswick, which seriously undermines the idea that this school was "needed" or "wanted" in the community it was approved to serve.  If they need to cast such a wide net to fill their seats, what does that mean about the NJDOE's decision to approve this charter, and it's decision to keep it open despite the VERY limited interest in East Brunswick?

According to the official enrollment numbers, Hatikvah serves 13 students from Highland Park, costing our district just shy of $165,000.  Highland Park had absolutely NO SAY in the approval process when Hatikvah was being considered by the NJDOE, yet proportionately the school is having almost the same impact it has in East Brunswick (Hatikvah serves .08% of Highland Park's public school students, and 1.3% of East Brunswick's).  

Highland Park administrators have found that the majority of children attending Hatikvah have never been served in our public schools - either parents place their children into Hatikvah in Kindergarten, or they transfer from private, religious schools. Nonetheless, our district is billed $12,692 (13 students at a cost of $165,000 = $12,692) per student, so the Hatikvah bill is just a loss of revenue for our district, with no cost savings at all.  

And while most charters complain that they get less than the 90% per pupil funding required by law, according to per pupil dollar amounts on the NJDOE website, Highland Park K-5 students come with a $13,239 per pupil price tag. 90% of that figure is $11,915 per student. But Highland Park Schools are billed $12,692 for Hatikvah students; almost 96% of our per pupil funding amount.  

In addition to this figure, Highland Park is required by law to provide the family of each child that attends Hatikvah aid in lieu of transportation, which is another $900 or so dollars per student, for a total of approximately $13,592.  

In other words, we end up paying MORE per pupil for children that never sat in a seat in one of our schools to attend a charter school that wasn't approved to serve our district. [emphasis mine]

There is, of course, a simple solution to all of this: local control. If a charter is needed in a community, let the democratically-elected school board approve it. If they don't, charter supporters can run their own candidates for the board (and get big money backing from charter cheerleaders who don't even live in the state) and make their case for charters to the voters. It's called democracy, and it works a whole lot better than having the sole power to grant charters rest in the hands of an unelected state commissioner of education.

When East Brunswick's Township Council overturned the variance, it was the first time elected officials directly accountable to the citizens of that community had a say in how Hatikvah spends their money. Was the overturning of the variance a proxy for a referendum on the school? Maybe...so let's solve that by issue by putting a charter's approval and oversight into the hands of locally elected school officials.

Now, I won't pretend that this will solve every issue and that people with strong opinions will just go away after the final vote. But it's clear, from looking at the comments here, that East Brunswick is at war with itself over Hatikvah. In addition to debates about the facts - which I won't step into because I have no knowledge of them - there are all sorts of charges and counter-charges flying back and forth about hidden motivations and ethnic biases.

I must say that I find it more than a little hypocritical for the school's supporters to charge its critics with anti-Semitism, then turn around in the same breath and claim Hativkah is merely a "language immersion" school that doesn't teach religious values and serves a diverse student body (having non-Jewish kids on the "waiting list" is hardly evidence of diversity). You can't have it both ways, folks: either a "Hebrew-immersion" charter is a Jewish school under another name, or it isn't. And you can't be anti-Semetic toward a school that isn't Jewish, can you? Plus, as this commenter says:

I believe that a charter school can alleviate the need to pay tuition, which increases every year. Paying tuition for 3 children is a burden on me. Families who want their children to learn Hebrew & Jewish studies but can not afford it, are put in a bad situation. Hatikvah Cahrter school will let certain families be relieved of the financial pressures of paying private school tuition.

Well, at least she's honest; we could use more of that in the charter debate.

All this aside, I will, once again, lay this all at the feet of New Jersey's terrible charter approval process. At least some of the citizens of East Brunswick, Highland Park, and the other communities are clearly frustrated that this charter was imposed on them without their say, and that they are being forced to fund it to the detriment of their public schools:

As described above, parents clearly have no need to move to East Brunswick to attend Hatikvah since students are coming from 17 neighboring towns!  What Hatikvah is ACTUALLY doing is DRAINING resources from other towns.  Not quite the same thing. 

East Brunswick schools did indeed add full day Kindergarten to their district.  Hatikvah heavily advertised their full day Kindergarten program, so to stop the hemoraghing of students to Hatikvah in that grade the district opted to add full day Kindergarten.  But to pay the Hatikvah bill East Brunswcik superintendent Dr. Jo Ann Magistro was forced to cut: 

The elementary foreign language program 

The summer Academy for at-risk students

21 extra-curricular clubs

3 sports programs

Ain't competition grand?

No, not really. Democracy, however, is quite nice. We ought to try it sometime...

Not on my watch!

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Jersey Jazzman

Jersey Jazzman is the pseudonym for Mark Weber, a New Jersey public school teacher and parent. Weber is also a doctoral student at Rutgers University in Education Theory, Organization, and Policy.