Religious Charter Schools: Follow the Money, Lose the Faith

charles c. haynes Commentary
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

On June 16, seven Roman Catholic schools in Washington, D.C., were transformed into seven public charter schools by a unanimous vote of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. It’s a conversion of sorts — only in reverse.

Other religious communities around the nation are already on the charter bandwagon, opening Arabic charters without Islam and Hebrew charters without Judaism. Not to be left behind, a Protestant minister in Harlem is pressing to start what he claims will be a religion-free charter in his church building.

Strange as it may sound, this is a hot new trend in education: creating faith-based schools without the faith.

Establishing a charter requires shedding overt religious identity because “religious charter school” is a First Amendment oxymoron. Although free from some regulations that apply to traditional public schools, charters are still public schools. That means they must be nonsectarian — neither promoting nor denigrating religion.

So why do people of faith leap to schools of no faith? In the case of the Washington Catholic schools, it’s all about the bottom line. As Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl told The Washington Post, “We simply don’t have the resources to keep all those schools open.”

With voucher proposals stalled in many state legislatures — or running up against state constitutional barriers — some Catholic dioceses and other religious groups are eyeing charter schools as a funding alternative.

But take the Catholic out of Catholic schools and what’s left? According to the archbishop, “They will have the same teachers, the same kids, the same environment. There will still be a level of value formation.”

What that will look like remains to be seen. At this point, it’s hard to see how the schools can sustain the “same environment” given that charters must be nonsectarian in hiring, admission and curriculum.

But at least these Catholic schools are populated mostly by non-Catholic students. When charter schools are designed to attract students of one religion, being faith-based without the faith is a much greater challenge.

Consider last year’s controversy surrounding the opening of Ben Gamla Charter School in Florida, the nation’s first Hebrew charter school. It took several tries before the school board approved the Hebrew curriculum because of concerns about religious bias in the materials.

Ben Gamla’s start-up problems, however, haven’t dissuaded Jewish community leaders in other states from undertaking similar efforts. An application was filed this month to open a Hebrew-language charter school in New York City.

Excluding faith from Hebrew charter schools doesn’t seem to bother proponents. Philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, a backer of the New York school, was quoted last fall in the New Jersey Jewish News as envisioning “a nationwide system of Jewish charter schools focusing on Jewish elements, not on religious studies — which appeals only to a minority of Jews anyway — but on elements of Jewish culture that make us strong.”

What is complicated line-drawing for Jews is even more complex for Muslims. The current uproar over Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in Minnesota underscores the pitfalls and challenges of attempting to separate Arabic culture and Islamic faith.

After news reports of possible mosque-state violations, the Minnesota Department of Education found TIZA generally in compliance with state law, ordering a few modest changes in school practice. But it won’t be easy for school officials to remain neutral toward religion as required by the First Amendment in a school serving mostly Muslims who want and expect an environment that reflects Islamic values.

Even if all of these schools manage to satisfy the letter of the First Amendment (a big if), the trend toward faith-based schools without the faith is problematic for at least two reasons.

First, public schools were founded to educate youngsters of all races and creeds. Of course, parents have the right to send their children to religious or other private schools. Public schools, however, receive public support because they serve the common good — not just the interests of one group.

It’s important to ask whether Hebrew and Arabic charter schools — filled with mostly Jewish and Muslim students, respectively — undermine the purpose of public schools by creating a balkanized system of public education.

Second, a faith-based school without the faith does religion no favors. Devout Christians, Jews, Muslims and others may be tempted to take the money and start the school. But substituting “culture” for “religion” is no way to advance the mission of faith.

Religious leaders beware. This Faustian bargain isn’t worth the spiritual cost.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].