A proposed Hebrew-language charter was voted down by school trustees in Santa Clarita Valley earlier this month as questions about the influence of religious practices in public schools once again became the focus of discussion.
Albert Einstein Academy was promoted as a rigorous college preparatory school where Hebrew would be a key component in the curriculum, but not the only language taught. Proponents believed that the academy could provide new opportunities and add diversity to the curriculum of the school district.
"Our goal was to provide something special for our district," Rabbi Mark Blazer, leader of the charter effort, told the Los Angeles Times. "The district had the opportunity to work in partnership with us."
However, trustees were concerned that the first ever high school focused on Hebrew, which is culturally considered a Jewish language, would become a place that catered specifically to Jewish students and ultimately end up violating the separation of church and state laws in public schools.
Steve Sturgeon, a trustee for William S. Hart Union High School District who voted against the proposed charter in Santa Clarita, said their were four legal concerns and that the religious aspect WAS one factor.
"At least by everything we could see on their Web site and information leading up to the petition, it was all part of the Center for Jewish Life which is being built here in Santa Clarita," he said.
Apprehension about the Hebrew-heavy curriculum, in which students would be required to study Hebrew for four years, stymied the process.
"Other Hebrew-language schools do not require four years of Hebrew language," said Sturgeon, "When asked why, their position was that it was simply fundamental."
Sturgeon said that another downside was that the Hebrew-language school would be counterproductive to the goal of diversity in new public charter schools.
"A charter is supposed to serve all the demographics from where it is receiving kids," he said. "Well, we have about 40 percent Spanish speaking population and as far as we can tell no advertisement was being placed in the Spanish community to attract that population."
Matt Albert, the executive director of New Los Angeles Charter School, said he believes that charter schools that focus on Hebrew or Arabic languages aren't appropriate and aren't necessary to build a community .
"[Charter schools] should play the same role as any public school," said Albert. "Schools themselves are already little communities... or can be."
Albert, who formerly worked as the director of admissions and recruitment at Hebrew Union College, said his charter focused on social justice because the board of directors held a common belief in the practice of teaching equality.
"It was a diverse group of people, not just a Jewish group, who believed in the importance of social justice," said Albert about the board who proposed the charter. "We focus on issues of equity and equality and finding ways we can help the less fortunate. Whether it's our students being volunteer reading helpers in local elementary schools, our student government having fund-raising drives for causes--we did shoes for Haiti, we do a food drive every month. It's trying to be conscious of inequality in the world and teaching the student these exist and we can all help."
Albert said his focus was different than that of a language-based school because it attracted students from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, as 60 percent of its students get reduced or free lunches, without playing on any religious sentiments.
The toughest part of obtaining New L.A.'s charter was finding a location, said Albert. Ironically, the school ended up finding a home in a church building, the Oasis Christian Center on Wilshire Blvd. Albert said being in a church has brought up questions from some parents in the community as to the religious affiliation of the school. But he said they are easily answered, as religion plays no role.
"I don't even know the religious backgrounds of our students, we don't ask," said Albert who then started reciting the ethnic and economic background statistics of his 155 sixth through eighth grade students.
"Our lease actually requires the church to remove all printed or visual references to religion during the week," said Albert about how careful the school is to avoid any religious connections or influence.
Those careful precautions to make certain the separation of church and state remains in tact is why charters undergo a rigorous approval process.
"Almost any group can put in a request for a charter school, but it has to past muster with the authorizer," said Priscilla Wohlstetter, an expert in charter schools at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education.
Wohlstetter said that while some see charters as creating a homogeneous community, the important aspect isn't what type of community it fosters but the educational value it adds.
"As long as the education coming out of the charters boots student achievement, they are playing their role," she said.
Wohlstetter said that the fear of a charter becoming a community of like persons hasn't been a problem for other schools. She Cited the success of several inner-city charters with student bodies that are almost all African-American as well as the New Village Charter school, a female-only school for young women who have been in juvenile hall.
While Albert Einstein Academy would have been the first Hebrew-language high school, it is not the first to broach the questions of the role of language and religion in charter schools.
The nation's first Hebrew-language school, the Ben Gamla Charter School, sparked debate when it opened August 2007, in Hollywood, Fla. Critics, including some in the Jewish community, claimed that the school began the process of blurring the divide between church and state. Others saw it as a way to strengthen Jewish identity.
Other states also have allowed language-specific charters. New York is home to the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, in Brooklyn, as well as several Arabic-focused school. However, many of these institutions faced scrutiny.
In 2009 the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Inner Grove Heights, Minn., public charter school Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, known as TIZA, for promoting Islam. The suit claimed TIZA violated the First Amendment by using federal and state money to promote religious practices, including holding prayers during class time.
As for the language-specific charter schools, Wohlstetter said that appropriate oversight prevents the practice of religion from becoming an issue.
"All kinds of charter schools need to be overseen," she said. "If I were authorizing that school I would want to pay attention to what assurances they have that religion wouldn't be taught. With the right assurances in place it could be a legal offering that would add some diversity to the public system."
She said with those assurances it is even possible to teach a religious text, such as the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, as long as they are strictly used as pieces of literature.
"As long as they don't advocate or indoctrinate they would be able to use them," she said.
Not allowing a dual-language school because that language may be affiliated with a specific religion is a slippery slope, said Wohlstetter.
"Many Spanish speakers are Catholic, but no one says we shouldn't teach Spanish because they might teach some Catholicism in there," she said. "There are ways languages can be taught without incorporating the dominant religions."
The Albert Einstein Academy doesn't plan to let go of its goal of obtaining a charter in the Los Angeles area. It will appeal to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, in hopes of revitalizing its plan to open a Hebrew-language school in L.A.