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New Debates Over Church, State, School and Charters

Graphic by Gotham Gazette, Photo (cc) idolector

Students at St. Catherine of Sienna School "worship and pray together in class as well as at weekly prayer services and liturgies," according to the school's description. The school, "guided by the teachings of Jesus, is dedicated to the development of spirituality, community and scholarship."

St. Catherine's building in St. Albans, Queens, may or may not open doors to students next September. But, if it does, its students almost certainly will not worship in class, and its teachers will not be able to help their students' develop spiritually guided by Jesus' teachings -- at least not overtly.

If the building that houses St. Catherine of Sienna serves as school next year, it will almost certainly be a charter school, funded and overseen by the city and state but privately run. Under a proposal made by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, St. Catherine's -- or some of the other threatened schools -- would not be operated by the Brooklyn diocese, religious art and symbols would be removed, and many of the teachers might be gone as well. Whether that would satisfy critics fearing a blurring of the line between secular and religious education remains to be seen.

The plan for the Brooklyn and Queens schools came as the state Board of Regents approved a Hebrew language charter school in Brooklyn and follows a heated controversy over an Arab language public school.

With an increasing number of charters and some small conventional public schools focusing on one ethnic group and the Supreme Court allowing the spending of more public money for religious education, some see a dangerous erosion of the separation of church and state in education. Others counter that state support for an array of options and services only serves to provide more children with a good education -- something people on all sides of America's religious battles should support.

A Religious Education

The proposal to save the Brooklyn schools came after the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Queens, announced in February that it would likely close 11 schools, including St. Catherine of Sienna, at the end of this school year and reorganize others. The plan, a response to declining enrollments and increasing costs, marked the latest chapter in the decline of New York City's once thriving Catholic schools. In seven years, the New York Times calculated, the diocese will have closed 40 percent of its grade schools. It has seen enrollment drop by 20,000 to about 35,000 since 1998. The Archdiocese of New York, which includes Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, as well as some areas outside the city, has closed 15 schools in two years and could shut more.

The closings have taken on the air of ritual, with parents, some in tears, mourning the shutting of schools where they sent their children. This time, though, there was a difference. Less than two weeks after the diocese's announcement, Bloomberg proposed converting four of the schools, unspecified as of now, to charter schools. The city has been a major booster of charters, but this marked the first time it proposed taking an existing private school and making it a charter.

Appearing with Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, Bloomberg couched his plan partly as a way to keep thousands of new students from pouring into already crowded public schools. "Many if not most of the students would be likely to seek admission in Brooklyn and Queens public schools that are already at or near capacity, which gives us all a shared interest in finding innovative ways to keep these school doors open," he said.

For the diocese the plan offered hope. Bloomberg "is throwing out a life preserver and I'm going to grab it," DiMarizo said at a news conference at City Hall.

But Bloomberg's proposal immediately raised questions about whether the city would be channeling public money to religious education. The city has repeatedly denied this, saying that in their new role as charters, the schools would have to shed their religious identity.

"Serious concerns are raised when the government tries to paint over the religious facade and import an entire school into the public school system and say it's not a religious school," Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union said.

"My view," said James Merriman, chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center, "is as long as the school are truly inclusive, and are high quality and offering options for communities, then we would welcome then."

Charter Law and the Constitution

The state's charter school law proscribes religious instruction or religious groups running schools. But that would not prevent the schools from keeping many elements of their old approach -- discipline, uniforms, a traditional academic curriculum, teaching of ethics and values (though not from a religious perspective) and so on.

Other parts of the state law could prove more problematic. For example, the law bars the conversion of any existing private schools -- including religious schools -- into charters. While Bloomberg said that all students now enrolled in the Catholic schools would be guaranteed admission to the new charters, the law mandates that all admission to charters be by lottery -- meaning no one can be assured of a slot. The law calls for 70 percent of all teachers at charters to be certified -- a requirement many Catholic schools do not meet.

Faced with such hurdles, some observers thought the mayor would have to ask the state legislature to change the charter school law or give these schools some kind of waiver. Lieberman, for one, said she did not think Bloomberg could engineer the conversion of the schools without the legislature's approval. In light of everything else on the legislature's plate, including mayoral control of schools, prospects for quick action seemed remote.

"This is going to raise a whole myriad of philosophical and practical questions about how public education is supposed to be provided, and I don't think they're easily resolved. It's a thicket," Steven Sanders, former chair of the Assembly education committee, told the Times.

To get around that thicket, the administration now is considering whether it can get the schools approved as charters under the existing law.

Explaining how such reasoning might go, Merriman said, "The charter school law clearly prohibits a conversion of an existing private school to a public charter school. But what is not at all clear is what constitutes a 'conversion.'" The State Board of Regents, which rules on charters, would have to look at an array of factors including, Merriman said, "whether the board of the school and the staff are substantially the same, whether the private school would transfer a substantial amount of its assets to the charter school and, finally, whether the charter school would occupy the same site.

"Depending on how those factors play out and how they are weighed, it's entirely possible that what the diocese is seeking to accomplish could be accomplished without having to change the charter law," he said.

Melody Meyer, a spokesperson for the city Department of Education confirmed that possibilities exist "to convert the school without a change in law." While the administration has not made a final decision on how to proceed, she said, "We're looking for the route that is the simplest, that would allow for the schools to remain open without a gap."

This could work in a number of ways. The schools could officially close in June and then reopen. Some staff might have to leave or there could be come kind of interim or alternative certification similar to what's done by Teach for America or the Teaching Fellows program. While the schools would have to be open to all students, the number of applicants might be small enough to all but ensure everyone a seat. After all, as Merriman noted, one reason the diocese is closing many of these schools is that they are vastly under-enrolled. New organizations could be set up, perhaps including individuals who work for the church but also parents, community members, alumni and others, to serve as the chartering organization and so on.

Amid any such maneuvering though, Meyer said, one thing will remain firm. "We are not," she said, "looking to change separation of church and state in charter schools."

Few Options for Catholic Schools

Much of this presents challenges for the church as well. The religious element of the education will be lost. The new schools will have a "profoundly" different culture than those they replaced, Merriman said.

Seven Catholic schools in Washington, D.C. became charters this year -- the largest such switch in the country. While enrollment has increased and the schools by many measures have thrived, "many veterans of the old schools say there is a noticeable emptiness in classrooms and hallways," Javier Hernandez wrote in the Times. "Students miss the moments they came together for prayer, they say, and teachers wish they could sometimes get a little guidance from the Bible."

In helping former parochial schools become charters, some critics say, the church could be contributing to the demise of religious education. While a multitude of things -- including demographic shifts and a rapid decline in nuns available to teach -- have contributed to the woes of parochial schools, most experts agree charters have not helped. Many parents, looking for a fairly traditional education for their children have found it in charter schools, which unlike parochial schools are free.

"The problem," Paul Moses wrote on Commonweal's blog, "is that this may hasten the demise of even more urban Catholic schools. And ... the charter schools are far from a proven success. One of the great strengths of the Catholic school system is that it has resisted the fads that sweep through public education. And if it should turn out a few years down the line that charter schools were just one more false hope, what will the alternative be if the Catholic schools have closed?"

Sol Stern, a senior scholar at the Manhattan Institute, who has praised Catholic schools for their work in urban neighborhoods, said the diocese has no choice. Converting the schools to charters is "the only strategy. It's a desperate strategy, not something that makes me happy," he said, adding, "It's a further indication that Catholic schools are in extremis. ... This is the finger in the dike."

Like Moses, he sees the demise of the schools -- or even their conversion -- as a loss. "Catholic schools at their heyday provided a spiritual dimension, a spirit of community, a higher purpose" along with solid curriculum "that enabled them to do a great job," he said.

Other Religions, Other Schools

The former Catholic schools would join other charter schools and some conventional public schools that seem to cater primarily to a single religious or ethnic group. The city has more than 60 dual-language schools, the vast majority offering instruction in both English and Spanish, with many located in largely Latino communities. By one count, in 2007, the city had 11 "culturally themed charter schools."

One, the Hellenic Classical Charter School, pledges to "supplement all instruction with the classical study of the Greek and Latin languages [and]... will utilize didactic instruction, coaching and Socratic questioning." Despite some questions abut the school's relationship with a nearby Greek Orthodox Church -- teachers refer to the church's priest as the school "spiritual leader," Elizabeth Green reported in 2007 --the school has attracted little controversy and reportedly has a diverse student body.

Not surprisingly schools appearing to cater to Jews and Arabs have raised more questions, with people wondering whether they are madrassas or yeshivas masquerading as schools of language, history and culture.

A proposal to create a new small public school -- not a charter -- focusing on Arab culture and language sparked virulent protests in2007. The now defunct New York Sun mounted a full press attack on the concept of the school with one of its writers going so far as to say, “How delighted Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda must have been to hear the news — that New York City, the site of the worst terrorist attack in our history, is bowing down in homage to accommodate and perhaps groom future radicals."

Eventually the Khalil Gibran Academy opened, but not before its founder and principal was forced to "resign." The school, now in its second year, has continued to have difficulties, according to a recent account by Seth Wussler in Colorlines. "This past September, many of the original sixth-grade students had not returned as seventh graders. The school has cut back on Arabic language instruction, is no longer set to become a high school and has moved twice in its first year of operation," Wussler wrote. School officials reportedly have been so afraid that the school -- named for a Lebanese-American Christian writer -- could be seen as Islamic that it removes pictures of mosques from its textbooks. .

So far, a school -- this one a charter -- with an emphasis on Hebrew language and history has had an easier time. In January, the State Board of Regents approved the creation of the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, the first Hebrew public school in the city. The school, at an as-yet-to-be-determined location in Brooklyn's Community School District 22, would open in the fall and eventually serve 675 students -- of all races and religions, organizers say -- in grades kindergarten through eight.

The school has the backing of Michael Steinhardt's Foundation for Jewish Life, which seeks to "revitalize Jewish identity." It has promised to give the school $500,000 a year, according to NYCity News Service. Steinhardt's daughter Sara Berman, a former columnist for the Sun, has played a key role in planning the school.

Berman has said she hopes the school will have a diverse mix of students studying "Jewish history, secular Israeli life and the history of what it is like for Jews to live all over the world. "In no way, she said, will the school "promote or teach religious devotion."

Skepticism remains however. Saul Cohen, the one member of the Board of Regents who voted against granting the school a charter, expressed doubt about whether many black, Hispanic and Asian students in the area really wanted to learn Hebrew. The charter, Cohen told the Times, is a way of getting a good private school with public funds."

Writing in the Jewish Week, Larry Cohler-Esses and Carolyn Slutsky said that the school may find it hard to draw a line between the religious and the secular. "To explain daily life in Israel to children — even secular daily life — the baguette [from a French lesson] might well become a challah ... for a Shabbat dinner that night, when the family will gather together around the table for kiddush, or blessing over wine, even if they are not religiously observant," they wrote. "The national holiday calendar also requires referring to Jewish religious holidays."

A Nationwide Development?

About 110 of the nation's 4,600 charter schools have a particular cultural theme, according to a Times report. In Minnesota, several charter schools serve largely Muslim populations, with many students the children of recent immigrants. A least one, a suburban school run by an Islamic charity, has come under attack for allegedly teaching religion.

Such a school, said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, may say it is inclusive and accept children of all backgrounds, but, he added, "it still was set up to fill a niche that is religious." (Lynn did say his group looked at Khalil Gibran and "didn't find anything particularly wrong with it.)

While such schools exist, Merriman does not seem them as part of a widespread movement -- at least where charters are concerned. There, he said "the trend still is a wide variety of people making school work in places" where parents wanted more options for their children.

Another person who works on charters, Todd Ziebarth, vice president of policy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said he has "seen an uptick," of Afro-centric and Latino charters and other schools catering to specific groups. The diversity of schools, he said, is good in that it provides "more high quality options for kids."

In Lieberman's view, though, these schools undercut a key mission of American education. While the public school system should seek "to integrate children of all backgrounds into a diverse society," she said, having what she called balkanized schools, "serves to isolate them."

For Lynn, charters pose a particular hazard in this regard because students have to choose to go to them. "The idea of choice can rapidly become what we used to call segregation,'' he said.

Like it or not, such divisions pervade all of education, not just charters, Stern said. "There's different kinds of balkanization in public schools as well," he said, noting that the Department of Education created Khalil Gibran as a public school and that mutliculturalism has eroded the idea that all students learn one unifying curriculum.

Degrees of Separation

Perhaps not surprisingly in city where so many people identify with religions -- and in an avowedly religious nation -- the line separating church and state can be a blurry one even in conventional, diverse public schools and traditional religious ones.

In New York City, the public schools provide transportation services to private and religious schools and serve as the conduit for Federal Title 1 funds for student from poor families to the religious schools, according to Meyer. In general, the courts have approved spending public money on so-called neutral services in religious schools.

But seemingly neutral services like health care can be fraught. A high school nurse, may, for example, feel that his or her job should include telling sexually active teens about birth control -- something that would not be allowed in a Catholic school.

Even renting space from religious institutions can pose problems. The city Department of Education, leases classroom space from the Catholic church, and students at the public schools occupying those properties have to leave their schools for health classes that involve birth control and other sensitive issues. Marc Stern, co-executive director of the American Jewish Congress, has written to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein protesting such arrangements. Beyond certain health topics, Marc Stern said, "Who knows what else teachers have to avoid?"

Help for Religious Schools

Religious schools, their supporters and particularly parents of religious school students -- who pay tuition as well as taxes to support public schools they do not use -- would like the city and state to do more to help them.

Hearing such pleas, the City Council has in the past allocated some of its so-called discretionary funds to religious schools. In 2006, for example, Councilmember Simcha Felder, whose district includes heavily Orthodox Jewish Borough Park, got $1 million for Jewish schools to buy buses. Felder also has wanted the city to provide nurses at religious schools and has been among a group of council members proposing a bill that would have the city provide security to religious schools.

"We want to break though the walls that do not allow private school parents to get a few benefits similar to public school parents," " Felder has said.

Lieberman disagrees. "It's important," she said, "not to perceive government subsidies for textbooks and nurses and other things as other than government subsidies for parochial education."

Last year, then Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed a bill that would grant a $1,000 tax deduction to parents sending their children to private or religious schools. Those supporting the idea, the Sun reported at the time, applauded it as "an important precedent for using state funds to explicitly help families pay for private tuition." Most of those opposing it did so for exactly that reason. The measure failed.

The New York State Catholic Conference continues to advocate for some kind of tax credit, along with providing more services to religious schools. In this time of tight budgets, spending money for this new kind of program could prove a tough sell. Church-state concern would make it even harder.

Few issues, after all, are more volatile in this county than those of church and state, particularly when it comes to our schools and our children. That could be one reason why, if St. Catherine of Sienna is to emerge as a charter school next year, the Department of Education and the Brooklyn diocese would rather not have to get the legislature's permission.

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