I am deeply impressed by the philanthropy of financial whiz Michael Steinhardt, but totally baffled by the decision of the New York State Board of Regents to approve his proposal to open a publicly funded Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn.
Steinhardt has given away hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it to promote Jewish cultural institutions and Jewish identity, as well as to endow the New York University School of Education, where I am a professor.
His generosity is unquestionable. In this case, however, he is asking taxpayers to support an institution that has obvious religious overtones. In a city with a great variety of Jewish schools and other agencies that encourage Jewish identity, it makes no sense to create a public school with the same purpose.
The proposal to the Regents asserts that the school will not engage in any devotional activities. Even so, the Hebrew language is so closely aligned with the Jewish religion that it is baffling that the Regents are willing to treat the proposed charter school as a nonsectarian institution.
The school will open in District 22, where three-quarters of the pupils are African-American, Hispanic or Asian. Since the district includes Sheepshead Bay, Midwood and Mill Basin, where a substantial population of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Israel reside, the latter groups would supply the school's main constituency.
Two years ago, when the Department of Education opened the Khalil Gibran International Academy, I objected to the idea that a public school would be centered on the teaching of a single non-American culture, without regard to which culture it was. Defenders of the Arabic-theme school responded that the Education Department had already created dozens of such schools - schools devoted to teaching Chinese, Haitian Creole, Russian and Korean cultures. But doing the wrong thing again and again does not make it right.
We don't send children to public schools to learn to be Chinese or Russian or Greek or Korean. We send them to learn to be Americans.
Our public authorities have forgotten that the public pays for public schools to advance public purposes. Among those purposes are: teaching kids their rights and responsibilities as American citizens; teaching them to live and work with others of different cultural backgrounds; and preparing them for higher education and for the modern workplace, where people of diverse backgrounds interact.
It is the job of family, the community and religious institutions to teach children about their heritage. The job of public schools is to teach children a common civic culture and a shared commitment to democracy.
In a city with hundreds of different ethnic and cultural groups, we should not be encouraging the creation of schools that are specific to a single non-American culture. That way lies separation, segregation and the fraying of the bonds that hold us together as Americans.
Of course our public schools should teach foreign languages. We should expect students to learn a language other than English. If there is a critical need for speakers of Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, Chinese and other languages - and there is - then school officials should make sure to hire enough language teachers to offer these languages in middle schools and high schools.
If the goal of the Hebrew Language Charter School is to strengthen the religious identity of Russian and Israeli Jews, then it should be a private school. If the goal is to teach Hebrew to a broad variety of students, then the Regents should encourage the teaching of Hebrew in the regular public schools. And the same goes for schools that promote Chinese, Russian, Korean, Spanish, Arabic and other world languages.
Ravitch is research professor of education at New York University. She is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a member of the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.