Orthodox Grapple with Charter Schools

March 9, 2009

Source: JTA 


The Yeshiva Elementary School, an Orthodox institution in Miami Beach, Fla., with about 450 students, was in financial distress in late 2008. It was behind on payroll, in considerable debt and facing financial collapse.


To meet this challenge, its administration considered splitting the school for grades K-8 into two separate institutions -- one for religious studies, one for secular studies. Like most Jewish day schools, Yeshiva Elementary had a dual curriculum for both areas of study.


Under the proposed plan, secular subjects would be taught in a publicly funded charter school that would be open to students of all religious backgrounds. Jewish studies would be taught later in the day at an off-site, private supplementary school. This plan could have saved the school hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating costs.


But when the plan was brought before the school's parent committee, it brought vociferous objections and was ultimately rejected.


Yeshiva Elementary's proposal followed on the establishment of the Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School in 2007, in Hollywood, Fla. The Ben Gamla School was chartered to teach Hebrew and Jewish history and culture, but not religion. In New York, a group backed by philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and others recently gained approval to open a Hebrew charter school in Brooklyn and now plans to seek approval to open similar schools elsewhere.


But charter schools have not been seen in a positive light by those, especially in Orthodox circles, who are wary of sending their children to school with non-Jewish children or too many Jewish children from irreligious households. Also, many Orthodox parents and educators do not see Hebrew language studies as a satisfactory alternative to Jewish observance and biblical instruction.


These Orthodox groups propose that the Jewish community see day school and yeshiva education as a communal responsibility and that philanthropists should shoulder more of the financial load to help make it more affordable. They also support government school vouchers, hoping to provide new sources of revenue that could be used to lower day school tuition, making it bearable for more parents.

Updated: Mar. 23, 2009