Charter Schools and Segregation

I generally believe that progressive education reform should include a healthy investment in the public charter sector, with careful oversight and attempts to re-create successful charter models. But as someone who writes frequently about the astounding levels of segregation within the American education system — a problem that is getting worse, not better — it is disheartening to realize the extent to which the "charterization" of some urban public school systems may be deepening segregation.

The New York Times is following two related stories. First, in Minneapolis, immigrant groups are clustering their children in charter schools that seek to preserve home cultures and language, such as Hmong and Somali. And in New York City, two years after an Arabic language-themed public school resulted in protest from conservatives, a state charter committee has approved, 8-1, the creation of the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, set to open its doors in September.

The project is funded by hedge fund retiree Michael Steinhardt, one of the donors to Birthright Israel, the program that gives any young American Jew a free trip to Israel. (Full disclosure: I took a Birthright trip in 2006.) Steinhardt's foundation says its vision is to fight the secularization of American Jewry, including intermarriage. "In order to be effective in contemporary culture, religion itself must become more subtle," the website reads. "It must be able to infuse the secular with holiness, so that the spiritual and the secular become one." Yet the school claims it will be totally secular and will teach Hebrew only as a language.

The one state committee member to vote against the school's creation was Saul B. Cohen. The Times reports:

Dr. Cohen questioned whether a Hebrew-language school was needed in a relatively high-performing district and whether a broad swath of students in the district, which is predominantly black, Hispanic and Asian, would be interested in learning Hebrew. (The district also includes neighborhoods with many Jewish immigrants from Russia and Israel.)

“It’s a way of getting a good private school with public funds,” Dr. Cohen said.

Indeed, that's how it seems to me. But of course, if this school provides an excellent education to Russian and Israeli immigrants who otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford a quality private school, that will be a good thing. The problem is that this school will further segregate the neighborhood's ethnic groups from one another.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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