As a former public school educator, I have been following what has been going on with school reform in this country. I have written posts about some of the groups and individuals involved in the current reform movement (here), the push to privatize public schools (here), school vouchers (here and here), and charter schools (here and here). Despite all the research that I’ve done on the subject, I hadn’t been aware until recently that there are many publicly funded charter schools across this country that have religious affiliations.
In December 2011, Tiffany Gee Lewis (Deseret News) wrote that there had been a “veritable explosion of charter schools over the past two decades.” She noted that a number of the schools that were riding this charter trend were “founded or authorized” by religious and cultural organizations. As she said, the subject of religion in public schools “has always been a hot-button topic.” She added that “the rise of charter schools that tie themselves to a certain ethnic or religious group introduces a new shade of complication to public schooling.”
According to Jessica Meyers of The Dallas Morning News, “Church-charter partnerships are springing up across the country as private institutions lose funding and nontraditional education models grow in popularity. Their emergence prompts questions about the role religious groups should play in the development of publicly funded schools.” She added, “Critics fear the fuzzy division means taxpayers are footing the bill for religious instruction.”
Meyer wrote the following with regard to charter schools in the state of Texas:
Charter schools are public schools run by private groups and approved by the State Board of Education. They are freed of many state rules. But they must adhere to the state’s accountability tests and maintain a separation of church and state. Religious groups may apply to open a charter school if they establish a separate nonprofit to receive state funds.
Even with a middleman, heavy overlap exists between the school and the religious group that supports it. Dozens of Texas charter school leaders or board members hold prominent positions in the church, where the schooling sometimes takes place. Parochial schools reinvent themselves as charters, often with little guidance on running a public school. And the mission of the school itself typically stems from the values of the religious group.
These close ties stir concern that churches will use state funds to bolster their coffers. In Houston, the Rev. Harold Wilcox and several church members were indicted six years ago for embezzling federal and state funds through Prepared Table Charter School. Wilcox paid himself a $210,000 annual salary to run the school and received $68,000 in rent for classes held in his Baptist church sanctuary.
Morgan Smith reported in The New York Times this past August that auditors for the Texas Education Agency had found that state money had been used inappropriately in some cases where charter schools were housed in churches. The agency discovered that the superintendent of a charter school in San Antonio “had used school funds to buy a former church.” The superintendent then “leased that building to the school she led.” Jack Ammons, who spent fifteen years auditing public schools across Texas as a monitor for the education agency, “said he found it was ‘nearly impossible’ for charter schools operating out of church facilities to avoid spending state funds on students in ways that also benefited the church.”
The majority of charter schools with religious ties are run by right-wing evangelical Christians—but, as Susan Jacoby wrote in The Washington Post, “…Catholics, Jews and Muslims are also getting a piece of the action.” (You can add Scientologists into the mix, too.) Meyers reported that Houston’s Harmony Public Schools “are run by Turkish Muslims who embody the philosophies of a popular imam.” She also noted that “Students at Ben Gamla Charter School in Florida eat kosher food in the cafeteria and learn Hebrew.”
Tiffany Gee Lewis:
Money largely explains why religious organizations get involved in the charter school movement because it allows them to establish a school that teaches the culture of their beliefs without the financial overhead of a private school. The most drastic example of this was in 2008, when the Archbishop Donald Wuerl converted a number of failing Catholic private schools into charter schools in Washington, D.C.
Dan Quinn, communications director for the advocacy group Texas Freedom Network, also spoke of the recent trend of religious schools “converting to charter schools.” He added that the process is legal but raises questions “about how students get accepted into the school and if there is follow-up from the state.”
Morgan Smith said that some educators—as well as other people—are questioning “whether the schools receive the proper oversight to ensure that religious groups are not benefiting from taxpayer dollars intended for public school students — or that faith-based instruction is not entering those classrooms.” According to Smith, many charter schools that are partnered with religious institutions “have cropped up in cities across Texas since the charter school system was established in 1995.” In fact, 16 of the 23 charter contracts that have been awarded by the state in the past three years have gone to schools with religious ties.
Writing for The Washington Post in 2010, Susan Jacoby said that “charter school promoters with specific religious and cultural agendas around the country are using every possible means to skirt the First Amendment and obtain public support for private aims.”
In November 2010, Jessica Meyers wrote a newspaper article about Advantage Academy in Duncanville, Texas. She said the students at this school “follow biblical principles, talk openly about faith and receive guidance from a gregarious former pastor who still preaches when he speaks.” She said Advantage Academy is typical of the “latest breed of charter schools”—those “born from faith-based principles and taxpayer funds.” She added, “Advantage markets its teaching of creationism and intelligent design. It offers a Bible class as an elective and encourages personal growth through hard work and ‘faith in God and country.’”
The academy’s founder Allen Beck is a former pastor for Assemblies of God who “hopes to instill morals and ethics in students as they learn to count and read.” Beck was quoted as saying, “America is in a battle between secularity and biblical thinking. I want to fuse the two together in a legal way.”
In his Salon article titled Darwin Inspired Hitler: Lies They Teach in Texas, Jonny Scaramanga tells the story of an engineer named Joshua Bass whose son attended iSchool High, a Houston charter school. Bass and his wife had hoped their son would receive a good college prep education at iSchool High. They were taken aback one day when their son returned home after school with “anti-science” books that were “apparently religiously motivated.” One book implied that Darwin’s theory of evolution had inspired Hitler’s plan to eliminate certain groups of people:
[Hitler] has written that the Aryan (German) race would be the leader in all human progress. To accomplish that goal, all “lower races” should either be enslaved or eliminated. Apparently the theory of evolution and its “survival of the fittest” philosophy had taken root in Hitler’s warped mind.
Scaramanga wrote that “attacks on science in the classroom were unacceptable” to Joshua Bass. Bass decided to investigate ResponsiveEd, the curriculum that was used at iSchool High. He discovered that “ResponsiveEd was founded by Donald R. Howard, former owner of ACE (Accelerated Christian Education). ACE is a fundamentalist curriculum that teaches young-Earth creationism as fact.”
ResponsiveEd is the latest in a long line of concerns raised over the religious affiliations of charter schools. Civil libertarians have raised concerns over Jewish schools converting to charter status. In 2010, more than 20 percent of Texas charter schools reportedly had a religious affiliation. And ResponsiveEd aims to expand further.
Imagine that—more than 20% of the charter schools in the Lone Star State have some form of religious ties.
Tax payer funding of charter schools with religious affiliations doesn’t sit well with everyone. According to Don Byrd (Baptist Joint Committee), “these publicly funded institutions are raising significant church-state challenges, both for the religious organization and the state trying to administer oversight.”
Shekinah Learning Institute
“Dr.” Cheryl A. Washington is the superintendent and founder of Shekinah Learning Institute, a group of thirteen charter schools in Texas “that receive $17 million in taxpayer dollars to educate 2,500 ‘at risk’ students.” In a radio interview with Rhema Gospel Express one day, Washington said, “I know it’s part of my nature to bust a move and take a risk. So what’s in me, when it’s imparted into the youth that I serve, then they become those future entrepreneurs that will not be afraid to take a risk…and know that they can do all things through Christ.” During the same interview, Washington said that operating the schools was a “divine assignment.” According to the San Antonio Current, Washington has claimed that God “has given [her] the jurisdiction to operate with dominion.”
In 2012, Americans United accused Washington of “violating the separation of church and state by secretly funneling religion into public classrooms.” Americans United alleged the institute’s Truth Campus in Dallas had instructed students to bring a Bible and notepad to school and that it “operates as if it were a publicly funded religious institution.”
In Showdown At Shekinah: A Church, A Charter School And Church-State Chicanery (June 2012), Simon Brown of Americans United wrote the following about Truth Campus:
Evidence gathered as of press time indicated that the school promoted weekly chapel services, offered weekly Bible study classes and used a religious name and logo, all of which could be violations of the Constitution’s First Amendment.
In Feb. 27 letters to Washington and the Texas Education Agency, Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper detailed the constitutionally problematic behavior and demanded that these activities stop.
On the Truth Campus’s website, Lipper notes, the organization said it is a public school that is “100% funded by the state of Texas.” Yet Americans United found that the school offers an optional weekly chapel service for its students. A promotional video on the website featured parents explaining how the chapel services teach students “about all the wonderful things that God is doing for them in their lives.” (The Truth Campus website has since been removed from the Internet.)
Note: A WOAI investigation discovered that two doctorate degrees touted by Washington are fakes. “When asked by WOAI in a TV interview why she still chose to use the doctorate title, Washington replied ‘Why not?’”
Life Force Arts and Technology Academy in Florida
Life Force Arts and Technology Academy is a charter school located in Dunedin, Florida. The school, which was established in 2009, receives about $800,000 in public funding annually. Life Force is run by a small Clearwater company called Art of Management, which was “hired to reorganize the school as it filed for bankruptcy.” Hanan Islam, the company president, is also executive director of World Literacy Crusade—an organization that promotes Scientology study methods. When Islam’s company assumed control of operations at Life Force, she assured parents that her group would “not push any religion” at the school.
Some parents of students who attend the school—as well as some former teachers—feel betrayed. They claim that the school “has become a Scientology recruiting post targeting children.” The charter school, which serves low-income students, had advertised its classes in computer and modern dance—but at some point began pushing L. Ron Hubbard’s “study technology.” Critics of the school call the study technology “a Trojan horse Scientology uses to infiltrate public classrooms.” In 2011, students at the school attended a Christmas party at a Scientology church “where they were given Scientology books and DVDs.”
Drew Harwell (Tampa Bay Times—February 26, 2012) wrote that “while Life Force students and teachers worked in poorly stocked classrooms and teachers went unpaid, the bankrupt school funneled tens of thousands of dollars more to Islam’s business interests than she told the bankruptcy court she would charge.”
Tampa Bay Times:
“There can be no accountability when this kind of stuff goes on,” said teacher Tim Roach, who said he was fired from Life Force last month after criticizing the school. “It’s the students who are going to suffer.”
Though mixing public education with religious doctrine is not allowed by the Pinellas County School District, which oversees charter schools, the district has been stymied in attempts to close Life Force because it is under bankruptcy protection.
Ben Gamla Schools in Florida
Peter Deutsch is a former six-term Democratic congressman from Florida. Deutsch, an Orthodox Jew and current resident of Israel, is the founder of and the “driving force” behind the Ben Gamla Hebrew-language charter schools whose curriculum “includes Israel education and Jewish history.” Most of the schools are located on Jewish community campuses. “Supplementary after-school religious programs take place onsite or nearby.” Approximately 85 percent of the schools’ students are Jewish.
In a Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) article titled Jewish public schools? Hebrew charter franchises offer radically different models, author Uriel Heliman wrote the following:
Most of the Ben Gamla schools are purposely situated on Jewish federation campuses. The Boynton Beach school is located on the second floor of a synagogue. The Ben Gamla high school in Plantation recently hired an Orthodox rabbi, Chaim Albert, as its principal.
The Ben Gamla schools are now under investigation because of a statement made by Deutsch in an interview with Uriel Heilman for JTA this past July. During the interview, Deutsch indicated that tax payer money that funds Ben Gamla schools is being used “mostly to benefit the local Jewish community.” Heilman said that the former US congressman hopes the schools will help give “Jewish kids who otherwise would attend public school an opportunity to be in a Jewish environment and develop a Jewish identity — at taxpayer expense.”
Heilman wrote that Deutsch was “unabashed about using public money to support what he describes as Jewish identity-building.” He added that Deutsch told him that 80% of Ben Gamla’s collective budget of $10 million “serves Jewish communal purposes.”
From the Miami Herald (10/28/13):
… Deutsch’s Ben Gamla schools have racked up hefty public funding — more than $10 million for nearly 1,800 students last school year alone.
In Broward, where the English-Hebrew charter schools have stirred the most controversy, Ben Gamla raked in $7.2 million from the state for five charter schools that operate at two sites, in Hollywood and Plantation. Those schools served more than 1,200 students.
A Ben Gamla school in the Kendall area of Miami-Dade received approximately $1.4 million from the state for 241 students last school year. Another Ben Gamla charter school in Palm Beach County received $1.7 million in state funds for 280 students.
According to Americans United, this isn’t the first time that Ben Gamla schools “have faced scrutiny for church-state concerns.” Last year, after visiting the schools, Jewish Week reported, “When it comes to church-state separation, these schools adhere strictly to the letter of the law. However, they arguably push as close to the border of what’s allowable as possible, and some of their practices might raise a few eyebrows.”
Minnesota Charter School Sued by ACLU
In January 2009, ACLU of Minnesota filed a lawsuit against Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA), a charter school that emphasizes the culture of the Middle East, and the Minnesota Department of Education. The ACLU argued that the school, which is supported by tax funds from the State of Minnesota and the federal government, had “repeatedly violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution by using taxpayer money to illegally promote religion.” A federal district court in the state ruled that the ACLU had standing to challenge TiZA.
ACLU of Minnesota released hundreds of documents in its case against TiZA, which is now closed, in October of 2011. At that time, Chuck Samuelson—the ACLU-MN director—said, “There is an overwhelming amount of documented evidence — by people who testified under oath in here — that these facts are as we have alleged they were.” Samuelson claimed the released documents “vindicate what his organization has been saying all along, namely that TiZA ‘illegally transferred money to its religious landlords, promoted Islam through its Arabic curriculum and its connection to the after-school religious program, and used taxpayer funds in excess of $1 million to renovate buildings to the benefit of their religious landlords.’”
According to Americans United, the legal dispute over the role of Islam in the school has been partially settled. “Under the terms of the settlement, education officials in Minnesota have agreed to more closely monitor charter schools to make certain they are not promoting religion. In addition, Islamic Relief, the organization that sponsored the school, has agreed to pay the ACLU more than $260,000 in attorneys’ fees.”
“I think the ACLU wants other [charter school] sponsors to know that sponsoring a religious school can be an expensive proposition,” said Peter Lancaster, an attorney who had worked on the case for ACLU.
What are your thoughts on tax payer money being used to fund public charter schools with religious affiliations?
Religious Charter Schools Try Balancing Act in Texas (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty)
Court Grants Standing in Challenge to Minnesota Charter School (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty)
Funds misuse, nepotism feared at Texas charter schools (Dallas News)
Church, state, school: Texas charters with religious ties (Houston Chronicle)
Trying to Keep Religion Out of the Charter School Classroom (The Texas Tribune/NY Times)
When Charter Schools Are in Churches, Conflict Is in the Air (New York Times)
Texas Charter Schools Allegedly Funneling Religion Into Lessons (TPM Muckraker)
Showdown At Shekinah: A Church, A Charter School And Church-State Chicanery (Americans United)
Lawsuit Over Islamic Charter School In Minn. Reaches Partial Settlement (Americans United)
One of every five Texas charter schools has religious ties (Journal Sentinel)
Public Charter School or Public Christian School? (Texas Freedom Network)
Turkish charter schools growing as some question cleric ties (Boston Globe)
Charter school dangers on display in Scientology case (Tampa Bay Times)
Many charter schools continue to defy church-state separation (Washington Post)
ACLU releases hundreds of documents in TiZA case (Minnesota Public Radio)
Largest charter network in U.S.: Schools tied to Turkey (Washington Post)
Charter Schools Tied to Turkey Grow in Texas (New York Times)
After career in Congress, Peter Deutsch finds new life in Israel (Jewish Telegraphic Agency/JTA)
Jewish public schools? Hebrew charter franchises offer radically different models (Jewish Telegraphic Agency/JTA)
Fla. Hebrew Charter School Under Investigation For Church-State Violations (Americans United)