Critics of charter schools were set to rally in Highland Park June 21, saying they want local voters to decide whether to fund charter schools in their districts.
The rally is one of three being held statewide — the others are in South Brunswick and Millburn — by SOS (Save our Schools), a bipartisan grassroots initiative that is also calling for greater “transparency” in charter schools.
The Highland Park organizers are opposed to a proposal for what would be the state’s first Hebrew-language charter high school. The Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School would draw its students from Edison, Highland Park, and New Brunswick.
The school’s application was turned down for the second time in January, although founder Sharon Akman of Highland Park said the state Department of Education encouraged her to reapply.
The rally was to feature three Democratic District 18 legislators, state Sen. Barbara Buono and Assembly members Patrick Diegnan Jr. and Peter Barnes III, who have all written to acting education commissioner Chris Cerf urging support of legislation allowing voters to decide whether to fund a charter school in their district and greater transparency in charter schools.
Opposition to Tikun Olam was central to a complaint contained in a letter written by Diegnan on behalf of himself and Barnes and obtained by NJJN.
Diegnan, the Assembly’s education committee chair, wrote that he was “alarmed” the state was considering the application in light of vehement resident opposition.
“As the debate on education reform continues to unfold, most people agree charter schools in the right place and at the right cost are a viable option for educating our children,” wrote Diegnan. “Our concern is based on the lack of community support for the Tikun Olam charter school and the lack of need for this school in high-performing districts like Highland Park and Edison.
“Just as public schools are required to get voter approval for their annual spending, charter schools should be required to prove their worth to the public before they open their doors and start spending taxpayer money.”
Currently organizers need only seek approval from the state to open a charter school.
Opponents of Tikun Olam also have raised concerns about church and state separation issues.
Because charter schools are considered public, they are banned from promoting religion. Critics have charged that Hebrew-language charters, like the Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick, are a backdoor way for parents to avoid the high cost of Jewish day school.
Conversely, some members of the Jewish communities in Highland Park and Edison, which includes many Orthodox, worry that a Hebrew-language charter would undermine existing Jewish day schools. Sources say that some local rabbis have spoken out against the Tikun Olam school from the pulpit and that a number of letters were sent to Cerf from within the community.
SOS member Julia Sass Rubin of Princeton said the group’s opposition to schools like Tikun Olam is about the democratic process, not religion.
She said an on-line petition opposing Tikun Olam had already gathered more than 2,000 signatures from Edison and Highland Park.
“Most of those signatures are from Highland Park, which is just incredible in a town of only 15,000 residents, not all of whom are even of voting age,” said Rubin. “It should be the decision of the local community regardless of whether it’s Hebrew immersion, Russian immersion, or advanced math.
“Our position is it’s not healthy for anyone to have schools that are not supported by the community.”
Melanie Hughes McDermott, an SOS member from Highland Park, said the community is a hotspot for anti-charter school sentiment.
She said opposition to Tikun Olam coalesced only after the Hatikvah school opened in September. When the school fell short of filling its roster with East Brunswick students, by state law the small of number of remaining slots were opened up to children from neighboring districts like hers.
“We had six kids leave our school district and we got a bill for $64,000,” said McDermott. “We are already operating with a loss of state aid. That just woke everybody up. We taxpayers need to make some grassroots noise.”