Feds defend grant to rejected Hebrew charter school
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The Star-Ledger looks into a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to the Tikun Olam Hebrew-language charter high school, and asks if the feds broke any rules by awarding seed money to a charter school before it was approved by the state.
October 18, 2011
The state said no for the third time to a proposal for a Hebrew-language charter high school in Highland Park, citing unspecified “deficiencies” in the latest application.
The Tikun Olam Hebrew Language High School proposal was one of 56 applications rejected by the NJ Department of Education.
Sharon Akman of Highland Park, the woman behind the campaign to open the institution, received a letter informing her of the rejection Sept. 30.
She is unsure whether she will reapply. “There’s always a possibility,” she said.
The rejection came despite the fact that organizers received a $200,000 seed grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Federal officials defended the grant in response to questions from The Star-Ledger, saying the department does not require grantees to have state approval before they apply for seed money.
According to the letter signed by acting NJ education commissioner Christopher Cerf, the application had undergone “a comprehensive review” by department teams.
“Based on recommendations and my review,” wrote Cerf, “I am denying your request because of deficiencies identified during the charter school application process.”
The letter did not elaborate on those deficiencies, in line with department policies, said spokesman Richard Vespucci.
“The whole idea behind charter schools is that it creates a choice option and an opportunity for educators who have innovative ideas,” Vespucci explained. “These are people who have taken the time, and we want to be constructive by not criticizing what was wrong with the application.”
Rejected applicants are encouraged to set up a meeting with the state DOE’s Office of Charter Schools to discuss how they can improve their plan and application.
Akman said she is taking a positive view of the latest events, particularly the Highland Park schools’ efforts to address student interests, including offering Hebrew as a foreign language at Highland Park High School. Vespucci said the education department was not aware of another high school in the state offering Hebrew.
The state approved plans for only four new charter schools. Akman was advised in the letter that the decision could be appealed to the Appellate Division of NJ Superior Court. It also encouraged her to continue her efforts to achieve charter status.
Tikun Olam hoped to serve up to 100 students from Edison, Highland Park, and New Brunswick. It would have been the state’s first Hebrew-language charter high school. Its proposal was last turned down in January.
While many charter-school opponents across the state have objected to state funding of specialized schools, opponents of Tikun Olam also raised concerns about crossing the line marking separation of church and state.
One of those opponents, Melanie McDermott of Save Our Schools and Speak Up Highland Park, said she was “shocked” that the federal government would offer the seed money despite the local opposition.
Darcie Cirmarusti, also active in both groups, said she has sent the groups’ objections to the state and federal governments and is planning an in-person meeting with the U.S. Department of Education.
The grant, one of 23 being issued to charter schools nationally, was not tied to the school’s being approved, said United States DOE spokesperson Elaine Quesinberry. She confirmed that there are safeguards in place to prevent the school from using the money should problems arise with its application.
In an Oct. 5 press release, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “High-quality charter schools have an important role to play in the overall strategy of successful school reform. These organizations have an opportunity to spread successful practices and expand effective public charter school choices for more students and parents.”