Charter for Controversy: When Public Charter Schools Promote Religion, Taxpayers Get Stuck with the Tab

Article excerpt

When Greg Blunt pulled his 11-year-old daughter out of Life Force Arts and Technology Academy, a charter school near Tampa, Fla., it had nothing to do with her academic performance. Instead, it had everything to do with the fact that Blunt believed Scientologists were taking over the school.

"Everyone knows the easiest way is through a child," Blunt told the Tampa Bay Times. "Here, little girl, have some candy. Here, little boy, have some books to read. ... Kids are kids. They're impressionable. If you can get through to the kids, trust me, you can rule the world."

Life Force Arts and Technology Academy opened in 2009, but it quickly went into deep debt and was taken over in 2011 by Clearwater, Fla.-based Art of Management, the Times reported. The group allegedly began pushing Scientology on students from the start, and some have accused the school of taking students to Scientology churches for programs, giving out Scientology DVDs and teaching lessons from materials created by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, according to the Times.

Despite the questions, the school remains open and continues to receive about $800,000 annually in taxpayer funds, the Times said.

This situation seems to be just one of many examples of charter schools blurring church-state lines. Thanks to bipartisan backing from both Democrats and Republicans, charter schools - independent public schools run by private contractors or other groups - have flourished. The trend is bolstered by a perception that charter schools provide superior educational outcomes to traditional public schools.

But what proponents ignore is that charter schools, which operate with little accountability or oversight, sometimes entangle religion in their operations and underperform academically in comparison to traditional public schools.

One controversial charter school system is Ben Gamla, which will have five schools in south Florida by fall 2012. The schools, built around a Hebrew-language curriculum, were founded by former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), and though they cannot legally discriminate on the basis of religion, Deutsch estimates that as many as 80 percent of the students at some of his schools are Jewish, according to The Jewish Week.

The New York publication also reported that of the four schools now in operation, three have Jewish principals (the fourth has coprincipals, one of whom is Jewish), and three of the schools rent space from Jewish organizations. One of the schools uses a building that formerly housed a Jewish day school, and the majority of the students from that school simply transferred to Ben Gamla, along with seven of its 10 teachers.

The Ben Gamla schools are controversial even in the Jewish community, in part because some fear that they are undercutting church-state separation.

"I'm not sure the real objective of Ben Gamla schools is the teaching of the Hebrew language, but rather the infusion of this 'Hebrew culture: which is really Jewish culture, which is really Judaism in another guise," said Rabbi Bruce Warshal in the Florida Jewish Journal.

Americans United shares some of Warshal's concerns, which is why AU in 2007 advised the school not to use a planned Hebrew-language curriculum that included theological concepts. The curriculum was "replete with religious content," AU said in a letter, making it inappropriate for use in a public school.

Americans United also advised the Broward County School Board to review all materials proposed for use by Ben Gamla. (The school agreed to change its curriculum.)

Life Force Arts and Technology Academy and Ben Gamla are only two examples of charter schools that raise constitutional issues. Problems are occurring around the United States and involve many religious traditions.

Consider this:

* In Pennsylvania, the Pocono Mountain Charter School is the subject of an ongoing investigation because the school's founder, Dennis Bloom, may have funneled taxpayer money to Shawnee Tabernacle Church, at which he is the head pastor, the Allentown Morning Call said;

* In Texas, the largest charter operator is the Cosmos Foundation, which has been accused of benefitting the followers of Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Muslim preacher from Ibrkey. …