A rally in Highland Park opposing the Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School brought out a broad array of opponents, including state legislators, local governing and school board officials, and members of the Jewish community.
The Nov. 29 rally, held at the Bartle School, was organized by Speak Up Highland Park, a grassroots group that supports local districts’ having more input into the establishment of charters.
The state Department of Education is weighing Tikun Olam’s fourth try at becoming New Jersey’s first Hebrew language charter high school.
“We will not quietly sit by,” vowed Darcie Cimarusti, a community activist who organized the event. She received strong applause from the crowd of about 250 as she leveled a number of complaints against the state, whose process for granting a charter application, she said, is “heavily biased” in favor of charters while discounting local opposition.
She charged that Highland Park and Edison are being forced to support “a boutique charter school with taxpayer funds.”
In press releases and at the meeting, opponents also charged that none of Tikun Olam’s supporters has children enrolled in public schools as required.
Some members of the local Jewish community, which includes a number of Orthodox synagogues, also object to the Hebrew-language charter high school, worried that it would draw students from existing private Jewish day schools
Highland Park Council member Gary Minkoff, who will become the borough’s first Orthodox mayor next month, told the crowd that although his children attend yeshiva, he is both a product and strong advocate of the public schools.
“Tikun olam means repair of the world,” he said. “But Highland Park, Edison, and New Brunswick are districts that are not broken. Tikun Olam will not fix our education system but will send our world into permanent disrepair and dysfunction.”
Sharon Akman of Highland Park, who submitted the application for Tikun Olam as a “lead qualifying founder,” has not responded to many attempts by NJJN for comment. Edison qualifying founder Jeffrey Silber and New Brunswick founder Ilana Lutman also did not respond to NJJN inquiries.
In its 2011 application, Tikun Olam founders said they had selected Edison Township and New Brunswick because many of the school’s founders reside in the area. The application also stressed the ethnic diversity of Edison, and the “urban” challenges facing New Brunswick, including “poverty, crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, academic failure, dropouts, gangs, and other challenges.” The application also describes the “special relationship” between Israel and both the United States and New Jersey.
By law, the school cannot teach religion and must be open to students of all backgrounds.
Akman previously told NJJN she chose Hebrew as a basis for the school because she has a background in the language.
“I feel the high school years are a stepping stone for college,” she said. “Foreign language proficiency really gives young people an edge. Also a key component of the school is tikun olam, repairing the world, and the community service which goes hand in hand with that. Community service is so important for college admission. It has gotten harder and harder to get into college in the last two or three years, and I know, because my younger children have been applying.”
In its first two tries, the charter school said plans were to include students from Highland Park and Edison. New Brunswick was added in the third attempt. Highland Park was dropped in its latest application.
Nevertheless, Speak Up members said that if the school does not attract enough applicants from Edison and New Brunswick, it will be opened to students from Highland Park.
“Six of the 13 founders still listed on the application are from Highland Park so there’s no reason to believe Highland Park students will not be involved,” Cirmarusti later told NJJN.
Because charter schools are considered public, local school districts must provide funding for each pupil enrolled from that district. Based on population, the Office of Charter School Funding of the Department of Education has estimated that Edison would have to turn over $850,000, New Brunswick $450,000.
Critics said Highland Park was charged $64,000 when the Hatikvah International Academy in East Brunswick, a Hebrew-language charter elementary school, did not fill its roster with East Brunswick students last year.
Democratic Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, whose District 18 covers Highland Park and Edison, said while charter schools have proved successful in failing urban districts, such as Newark, their worth has yet to be demonstrated in strong suburban districts.
Declaring “the fight is ongoing,” he cosponsored a bill that would require local approval before the establishment of any new charter school. His cosponsors are fellow Democratic Assemblymen Peter Barnes (Dist. 18) and John Wisniewski, whose District 19 covers southern Middlesex County.
That bill has been passed in the Assembly, but a Senate equivalent, S-2243, cosponsored by Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Dist. 18) and Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Dist. 15), has been bottled up in committee, said Barnes. He added if it is not passed and signed into law by the start of the new legislative session next month, the bill will die and the Assembly bill will be nullified.
Barnes decried that at a time when local districts are “facing terrible financial challenges,” including teacher layoffs and cutbacks of extracurricular activities, more money would be pulled from schools.
Despite having submitted petitions with more than 2,100 signatures and about 600 letters of opposition to acting DOE Commissioner Chris Cerf, Cirmarusti said opponents have never received any response. DOE representatives also declined to attend the meeting.
On Dec. 16, when opposition responses are due for the latest application, organizers plan to “occupy” the state DOE and have hired buses to travel to Trenton to hand deliver their letters.