Florida’s Ben Gamla Charter School is more than just a place of learning. It represents a radical new vision for the future of Jewish education in America.
The Ben Gamla school, which opened this summer, is the country’s first publicly funded, Hebrew-themed charter school. Its founder, former Democratic congressman Peter Deutsch, has said he wants to open 100 such schools across the country. Already, the idea of publicly funded, Jewish-themed charter schools has sparked the interest of mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, a major force in Jewish education.
Critics have raised two main concerns about the Ben Gamla school: First, they say it undermines the wall of separation between church and state (although school officials maintain their curriculum is not religious). Second, critics argue that the school poses a competitive threat to private Jewish day schools. These are valid concerns. There is, however, a larger problem, namely that the Ben Gamla model represents a profound betrayal of American Jewish liberalism.
At the core of American liberalism is the idea that government should actively promote the common good. This presupposes a common American identity, one that binds our diverse society into a single nation — e pluribus unum. Public schools have been a cornerstone of this idea, building a common civic identity and offering educational opportunity to all.
American Jews have remained remarkably loyal to this vision. That’s why our community has fought efforts by conservatives to divert public funds to private schools. It’s why many Jews have taken the lead in opposing those on the multiculturalist left who reject the idea of a common American heritage that should be taught to children of varied backgrounds.
And why shouldn’t we defend this vision? After all, it has served us well. For Jews, public education provided a route to upward mobility. Public schools not only helped Jews enter the mainstream, they also helped craft an American civic culture that includes us.
Today, however, the challenge facing American Jews is no longer how to integrate into the mainstream. Instead, we struggle with the question of how to preserve our distinct heritage amid the assimilatory currents of American life.
Many communal leaders have concluded that the solution is for more Jewish kids to enroll in private Jewish day schools. They can point to survey data suggesting that day school graduates are more likely than their peers to have strong Jewish identities, affiliate with synagogues and marry other Jews.
The allure of Jewish day schools presents a difficult choice. Day school education has its benefits in terms of strengthening Jewish identity. But opting for Jewish schools also involves turning inward, away from a full embrace of the larger American scene — and away from the public education system that has served us so well. Something valuable is gained, but something is also lost.
No one can blame parents who — faced with this dilemma — choose to enroll their children in Jewish schools (after all, many non-Jews have long made similar choices). At present though, relatively few non-Orthodox children attend Jewish schools full-time, in part because tuition can be prohibitively expensive. That’s why Ben Gamla’s charter school model is so tempting. It offers many of the benefits of a Jewish day school (minus the religious component, of course) but with the taxpayer footing the bill.
It’s one thing, however, to opt out of the public school system; it’s another thing to cash out. It’s one thing to privilege your group’s private interests; it’s another to demand that government privilege those interests, as well.
True, this is not only a Jewish issue. The charter school movement has opened the door to public funding of particularist agendas; there are, in various places around the country, schools that are dedicated to promoting Greek, African-American and even Muslim culture. Thankfully, these remain the exception rather than the rule.
But what if government-funded charter schools devoted to reinforcing the pride — and prejudices — of particular ethnic groups became the norm? It’s difficult to see how this would lead to a more cohesive, tolerant America. And that’s why it’s hard to imagine this model would ultimately be good for America’s Jews.
Daniel Treiman is the Web editor of the Forward.