The Problem with Ethnic Charter Schools
by Richard Kahlenberg
On Monday, a committee of the New York State Board of Regents approved a proposal to create a Hebrew-language charter school in Brooklyn. The school is part of a growing movement among charter schools to target specific ethnic or racial groups. As Sara Rimer noted in a front page New York Times story on Saturday, there are 30 ethnic charter schools in Minnesota alone, catering to groups such as Somali, Ethiopian and Hmong immigrants. Some regular public schools have gotten into the act, too, most notably the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a public school in Brooklyn that emphasizes Arabic language and culture, which drew strong conservative opposition but continues to operate.
Some liberals, like The American Prospect’s Ezra Klein, have noted conservative hypocrisy: why the vociferous opposition to an Arabic language school but silence on the Hebrew language school? Klein says he supports both schools. But is that the right position for anyone, much less a liberal?
Most liberal critics appropriately object to public funding of religious schooling, but once a school avers that it won’t teach religion per se – as the Arabic, Hebrew and East African Schools contend – many liberal critics are satisfied. But, as Dana Goldstein notes, the objection to ethnic schools goes deeper than the church/state concern.
For many years, liberals were strong supporters of economically, racially and ethnically integrated public schools – schools that would provide equal opportunity to children from all backgrounds and would teach students to be tolerant citizens in a democracy. It was entirely appropriate for parents to instill in children pride in their ethnic or religious heritage, but the public schools were meant to counterbalance that tendency with efforts to teach children what united us as Americans.
That’s not what Michael Steinhardt, the philanthropist behind the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, has in mind. According to a story in The Forward back in May, Steinhardt’s aim is to “strengthen Jewish communal identity.” He envisions “a nationwide system of Jewish charter schools focusing on ...the elements of Jewish culture that make us strong.” Steinhardt, the New York Times notes, has a “passion for encouraging young Jews to marry one another.” The East African school in Minneapolis, likewise, is seen by supporters as “havens where their children are shielded from ...American youth culture.” In these sentiments, multiculturalists find common ground with supporters of private school vouchers who believe that the ultimate value is maximizing parental choice and control.
But the purpose of public schools is not to satisfy the individual preferences of parents. The fundamental justification for taxpayer funding of public schools, as the late Albert Shanker noted, is to teach children what it means to be an American.
If American schools should generally try to educate children in integrated environments, should there be an exception made for marginalized ethnic groups, or small religious minorities, as a form of affirmative action? This was the theory behind “community control” of public schools in the 1960s: black-run schools, with black students, black teachers, and black principals, would instill pride, raise student self-esteem, and boost achievement. The program was an utter failure. Segregated schools, even run with good intentions like those catering to low income East Africans in Minneapolis, will, on average, cut students off from social and cultural networks that are critical to success in American society.
President-Elect Barack Obama has been a strong supporter of charter schools, as is the Education Secretary-designee Arne Duncan. Charter schools are supposed to respond to market demand; and in theory, charter schools will pop up to meet the demand of ever narrower segments of society. At base, the question becomes: is it okay for public tax dollars to provide separate charter schools for each and every ethnic group that wants it?
Americans once had two institutions that served as glue in our diverse population – the military (for males) and the public schools. Once the military went to an all-volunteer force, we lost that source of cohesion. We would be wrong to forfeit it among public charter schools as well.