REALM Charter schools withdraws its petition to open both its proposed middle school and high school from the Berkeley Unified School Board (BUSD)

In a tentative victory for opponents of the proposed REALM middle and high school charter schools proposed for Berkeley, California the proponents and creators of REALM (Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement) and their supporters, both the Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA) and PICO, withdrew their petition for consideration of for the establishment and opening of a middle and a high school charter school before a vote could be taken on February 3, 2010 by the Berkeley Unified School Board (BUSD). We can thank anti-privatization organizers for this victory but is it really a victory or just the first stage in a long, protracted struggle?

In an earlier and extensive article for dailycensored.com, I examined the claims of those proposing REALM along with a copious look the deteriorating economic and social conditions that confront all youth and working families, but especially youth and working classes of color in the city of Berkeley. (http://dailycensored.com/2010/01/28/berekely-school-board-to-vote-on-the-proposed-realm-charter-school-will-faith-based-chartes-coupled-with-oligarch-and-philanthro-capitalist-largess-improve-public-education/). The point I was trying to make was both social and economic; the economic argument being that one cannot conceive of equal and quality education for all youth, especially those of color if we do not seat our understanding within the horrific economic material conditions we find ourselves in today. The social argument is the virulent and daily movement to unseat over 150 years of public schooling and replace it with national or local retail charter chains which would then be removed from a great deal of oversight both in the case of non-profit and for profit charter schools and chains. Furthermore, the schools would become their own districts taking needed monies from traditional public schools, leaving them bereft of funds, something inordinately cruel, at this juncture in the failure of capitalist economics. It would spell the beginning of the end for public education.

Of course to be fair to proponents of REALM, they say they are doing this for the best interests of children but it is hard to see how desegregating schools, pilfering the paltry public budget of traditional public schools and leaving behind many special education students would be served by boutique schools like REALM that admit students based on a lottery when preferential admission and/or seats are unavailable. You can read this analysis at the dailycensored.com article referenced above.

Daily deterioration and economic devastation go unreported in the corporate press while working people, such as those in Berkeley, suffer privatized housing as public housing paid for by years of tax payer funds are turned over to corporations, loss of social services, deteriorating living conditions, incarceration, and racism and class warfare.

In the midst of all this, coupled with budget cuts and economic devastation to cities and states, charter schools now see an opening for the privatization of education they have sought for years. They are now equipped to tell parents that the public schools are deteriorating, that they do not ‘raise test scores’ sufficiently for the numerologists in Washington and state government, that the unions and teachers have caused this crisis and that traditional public schools cannot be repaired but instead must be reformed by ‘turnaround’ artists who will open charter school chains. This reformation, in the case of Berkeley, came in the form of a proposal for the two charter schools that would serve six hundred Berkeley middle school and high school students.

But the impetus for the REALM charter schools, as noted in the dailycensored report, largely came from religious congregations. They too see an opening for a faith-based safety net as the public sector continues to suffer economic and social devastation. Faith based charities and organizations have for many years longed to take over many public sector services, from education to health care. Why? Simple: when the public sector crumbles due to neglect it offers the opportunity for ‘religious product placement’.

As the Berkeley Daily Planet reported Sept. 3, 2010, REALM was the brainchild of Victor Diaz, principal of Berkeley Technology Academy (the district’s only continuation school), and Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA), who want to provide students with a project-based, technology-oriented curriculum that would make them ready for the 21st-century job market. But Diaz works closely with the faith based community organizations PICO and BOCA and in fact Mike McBride, a pastor and organizer for BOCA, is on the interim board. There can be little doubt that REALM smacks of faith based interests and raises questions as to whether it is attempting to ‘snake into’ Berkeley public schools. Nor can there be any doubt about the fact that REALM wants money, desks, materials, books and supplies at tax payer expense from both the Berkeley Unified School District and state funds, which they have already received (interview with Diaz, http://dailycensored.com/2010/01/28/berekely-school-board-to-vote-on-the-proposed-realm-charter-school-will-faith-based-chartes-coupled-with-oligarch-and-philanthro-capitalist-largess-improve-public-education/). All of this is troubling for it violates, as we will see, the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

The Faith-Based REALM Proponents and Faith-Based Organizing for REALM

The faith-based REALM charter proponents are very clear. Take this statement from the PICO National Network, a faith based community organizing group heavily supporting REALM charter schools:

We believe that one of these opportunities is the establishment of the REALM public charter school in Berkeley. While we need to continue-and accelerate-our city-wide efforts to improve the quality of our existing schools, we believe that African-American and Latino families, as well as other families in Berkeley, need to have additional secondary schooling options for their children and REALM could be an excellent option for them (http://www.piconetwork.org/news-media/coverage?id=0341).

And just who are the PICO National Network?

PICO is a national network of faith-based community organizations working to create innovative solutions to problems facing urban, suburban and rural communities. Since 1972 PICO has successfully worked to increase access to health care, improve public schools, make neighborhoods safer, build affordable housing, redevelop communities and revitalize democracy.
PICO helps engage ordinary people in public life, building a strong legacy of leadership in thousands of local communities across America.
Nonpartisan and multicultural, PICO provides an opportunity for people and congregations to translate their faith into action. More than 40 different religious denominations and faith traditions are part of PICO (ibid)
PICO is clear that it promotes a model of faith-based community organizing:
Faith-Based Community Organizing is a method of working with faith communities to address the problems and concerns of their communities, and in turn, vitalize and strengthen the life of congregations. (ibid).

Certainly, one can assume, their interest and support of REALM is also an attempt to incorporate the move towards the charterization of public schools with faith-based proselytizing and ideological goals.

PICO goes on to swat away any criticisms of charter schools by declaring:
Despite the popularity of public charter schools in many low-income communities of color throughout the country, some misinformed local critics have tried to lump these public schools into a single category, labeling them as part of a right-wing conspiracy to privatize education or, using outlandish rhetoric even by Berkeley standards. The fact is that the thousands of public charter schools that exist throughout the country are extremely diverse in their goals, populations, and performance. The REALM public charter school, as with all public schools, must be evaluated on its individual merits and vision. Its mission to serve the least advantaged children in Berkeley is fully in accord with the noblest aims and historic legacy of the Civil Rights Movement (ibid).

Sure, many charter schools are diverse, but that is not the issue. The issue is how they economically drain money from traditional public schools already hemorrhaging for funds and then set up for-profit or non-profit management of charter schools which then have deleterious effects on education, leading to ‘creaming’, segregation, inequality in education and arguably the privatization of education.

The economic model is called neo-liberal economics and it is very clear in its goals: it involves the transfer of tax payer monies to, in this case, charter schools that are then run by private non-profit or for-profit boards, usually unaccountable and non-transparent that then contract for services, in the case of non-profits, through the ‘back door’. So what seems like a “smiley face’ non-profit operation is really a vehicle for a back door conveyor belt to for-profit companies who provide for-profit services like janitorial services, cafeteria services, administrative serves and the list goes on. All once good union jobs with benefits and decent pay and working conditions. This is the Walmartization of education.

REALM admits it wishes to contract out it services to private for-profit corporations, in terms of payroll ((http://dailycensored.com/2010/01/28/berekely-school-board-to-vote-on-the-proposed-realm-charter-school-will-faith-based-chartes-coupled-with-oligarch-and-philanthro-capitalist-largess-improve-public-education/). It’s an old hat trick whereby the charter schools get to privatize profits and centralize control while parents and working families socialize the costs by picking up the tab through subsidies. Meanwhile the teachers lose any collective bargaining rights they once had, are forced into merit pay schemes, use canned curriculum and have little day to today decisions over the inner workings of the schools they teach in. So the debate is not about if charters are diverse, it is about whether children can have access to a quality and equal education and their teachers can have decent employment with collective bargaining and just wages benefits and retirement.

According to Yvette Felarca, a national west-coast organizer for The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality, By Any Means Necessary (BAMN)By Any Means Necessary (www.bamn.com):

For decades, Berkeley has been a model for integrated public education that works. And for the last six years, this city has successfully defended itself against legal challenges to its integration plan. But instead of expanding upon our success, this proposed charter school attempts to institutionalize and make a model out of segregated education in Berkeley (The Berkeley Daily Planet, Activists Protest City’s Proposed Charter School Riya Bhattacharjeehttp://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2009-10-08/article/33903).

And just what and who are Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA) who also worked to support REALM?

BOCA is comprised of 18 diverse Berkeley congregations of faith who work together to challenge the inequities of our society that promote poverty, separation, and fear. We come together over issues of education, immigration, health care, community safety, housing, and poverty.

We are actively working on encouraging parents of Latino and African American backgrounds to be engaged in their children’s public school experience through informational forums. We have successfully implemented a streamlined process for Berkeley’s 800+ uninsured children to enroll in affordable health insurance. We strongly support the Cover All Children Campaign and SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) in an effort to gain health care coverage for all children (http://www.berkeleyboca.org/).

They too are a part of PICO and the two of them work in tandem to bring faith into public life, and then subsidize it all with public funds and as I wrote, oligarchic largess.

REALM lacks sufficient funds: So why did they apply I the first place?
The original petition submitted to the BUSD by REALM included a budget to start-up both charter schools. In that budget the sum of $275,000 was indicated as having been allocated to REALM by the state of California to ‘reform’ education through charterization. This paltry sum could hardly even open up a mom and pop store let alone service the needs of Berkeley students, 6oo of them, many with special needs. Nor could the monies given by the state help with the whopping costs of leasing buildings, as proposed by REALM, and all the other day to day start-up costs that go with ‘running a new business’ which is what REALM would be.

Felarca is salient here noting:

At the end of January Victor Diaz sent a letter to the superintendent that he was pulling the petitions, but planned on resubmitting new one “in the next several days.” The reason stated was that REALM received a larger than expected grant from the State Dept. of Education. They thought they were getting $375,000 but they got $600,000. They were going to “rework” their application (E-MAIL FROM Yvette Felarca 2/05/2010).

Sure, with Race to the Top (the most underreported story in both national and state corporate news) and California’s attempt to receive $700 million dollars through the national scheme put into place by the Obama administration and particularly by Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, they might even get more. Who is lobbying for them in either Washington or Sacramento? Who is working the back channels to assure that REALM gets funded, if at all?

It is unclear why REALM would petition the BUSD in the first place with a charter plan that had no chance at financial solvency and would probably not pass board muster. Starting a charter school or schools that serves six hundred kids on an initial budget of $375,000 was a dream in the first place; especially in light of the fact REALM did not even have a building to house the schools in. Home prices are twice that amount in the city alone. The costs would range in the millions. So just what’s up?

One can only surmise that REALM, realizing that they would be turned down at the February 3, 2010 BUSD meeting where their petition was to be voted on (public hearings had been exhausted in January), decided on a different strategy, one still unknown but perhaps easily inferred from other historical charter schemes, especially faith-based ones. Perhaps Diaz or the Superintendent of Berkeley schools put in a call to Sacramento or Washington to gain assurances that more monies would be forthcoming, thus boosting the initial budget and making the spread sheet pass the smell test.

One thing was clear: after the initial public hearing in January it was obvious that REALM had no economic ability to open the schools or to maintain any sense of solvency once schools were open. Isn’t this the height of irresponsibility?

Contemporary Charter schools and the Establishment Clause: Is REALM attempting a run-around the Constitution?

By virtue of the fact that charter schools are part of the public educational system in the United States, charter schools are legally bound by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. This means charter schools are subject to what is called the ‘Establishment Clause’ of the United States Constitution, also often referred to as the notion of the “separation of church and state. When applying the Establishment Clause to public schools, the Courts have often emphasized the importance of maintaining ‘neutrality’ on behalf of public school officials toward religion What this means is that legally public schools may neither inculcate nor may they inhibit religion. They also may not prefer or privilege one religion over another – or even religion over non religious beliefs. This means that charter schools, since they are pubic schools, should not do anything that promotes a particular religion or faith. But is this the case? Are charter schools being utilized by religious communities to establish their own religious schools? The ACLU thinks so.

In 2008, after concerns were leveled at the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy charter school (TiZA) located in Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Education proceeded to investigate the school and they eventually found the school was mostly in compliance with state and federal law. The school was told to take corrective actions regarding prayer services held each Friday at the school and the officials of the school were ordered to make bus rides home available right after school ends, instead of after a ‘voluntary’ after-school religious program that the school held. Yet on January 20th, 2009 the ACLU filed charges against the Minnesota Department of Education alleging that the charter school, which caters to Muslim students, is using taxpayer money to illegally promote religion in violation of the First Amendment.

According to the lawsuit the TiZA has violated the First Amendment by preferring the Muslim religion over others. For example the ACLU cites the fact that the school allows prayer sessions during school hours. They also allege that the charter school prefers Muslim dietary practices by serving certain foods and endorses Muslim clothing rules. This they allege is a violation of the Establishment Clause. The school said in a written statement that though officials haven’t yet seen the ACLU’s complaint, they believe the lawsuit is without merit; however the deputy education commissioner for the state said in a written statement that the department is reviewing the ACLU lawsuit and will continue to monitor operations at TiZA. He also said the department is drafting legislation to address some of the concerns. (Dunbar 2009).

On the other hand, Lawrence Weinberg and Bruce Cooper, writing for Education Week, imply that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which said that public vouchers could be used for students’ tuition at religious K-12 schools, opened the door for religiously based charter schools, or at least the authors and their supporters seem to believe this to be the case. The issue of mandatory school attendance at a public school within a state was presented to the State Supreme Court of Oregon in 1925 for adjudication.

In the case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Supreme Court noted that an earlier 1922 Oregon state law requiring that all school-aged children attend a public school in their community cannot outlaw attendance at private or religious schools; that to do so was unconstitutional and a violation of parents’ rights to direct the upbringing and education of their children. However it is important to note that the court in no way allowed for the public financing of such schools. It simply stated that a private religious education met the requirements of mandatory attendance in school for Oregon students. As a result of the Oregon state court decision as well as federal decisions which have held the same, the issue of religious charter schools and public funding should be an open and shut issue, right? But is it?

Authors Weinberg and Cooper claim that TiZA offers an example to citizens as to how to tailor such ‘religious theme’ schools to meet the exigencies of the Establishment clause while still allowing for a religiously or ethnically based ‘theme charter schools.

I am certainly not arguing that REALM has an agenda for converting charter school students to faith based thinking institutions, however what I am arguing is that when so-called faith-based organizers and community strategies are employed in tandem with public entities in an attempt to carve out a mini-school district through charter schools, this is and can be problematic. We do not know if REALM will be working towards this ‘tailoring’ end; they have never stated they would. But their arguments for REALM charter schools sounds hauntingly like those arguments made for ‘religious theme’ schools.

How to insert faith-based charter schools into public life

Take the commentary by Weinberg and Cooper published in Education Week in 2007 whereby they counsel those interested in opening such ‘theme’ schools could follow Ziyad Academy’s example. They offer the following tips, and others, for religious groups that may be interested:

create a separate, secular foundation to support the school; adopt a mission statement that includes specific educational goals unrelated to the religious or cultural purposes; and develop a curriculum that meets the school’s religious, cultural, and educational needs. In short, the school should be designed “to teach the ethics and history of the faith, but not to practice it (Weinberg and Cooper 2007).(http://www.edweek.org/login.html?source=http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2007/06/20/42cooper.h26.html&destination=http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2007/06/20/42cooper.h26.html&levelId=2100 What About Religious Charter Schools? By Lawrence D. Weinberg & Bruce S. Cooper published June 20, 2007

Does this sound like the REALM charter schools? Is this simply a political game plan for a run-around the separation of church and state in an attempt to get public funding for religious schools that pose as secular institutions? Is the so-called ‘religious camel’s nose’ under the tent, shouldered by the taxpayer?

Opponents say it is and that we can expect more debates as the charter school movement grows and as cash-strapped public schools turn to outside groups for programming. Will REALM be part of this debate? Many think so.

Yale Law School author Benjamin Siracusa Hillman argues that:

Given that charter schools provide private groups the chance to get involved in public education, it was only a matter of time before religious groups sought to provide educational services-whether to their own adherents or to others-at public expense. In recent years, charter schools that are self-consciously centered around Muslim, Jewish, and Christian values have sprung up. These “religious charter schools” differ significantly from private religious schools in that they purport to comply with the Establishment Clause’s requirements for public schools, while simultaneously reflecting the values and culture of a particular religious group. Religious charter schools raise difficult constitutional, social, and political questions, which courts and the legal academic literature have only begun to explore (Hillman 2008)

And here lies the contentious debate: the notion that these specific charter schools “purport to comply with the Establishment Clauses’s requirement for public schools…” But do they?

Another example: The Hebrew Language Academy

TiZA is not the only charter school that has raised eyebrows among civil libertarians bent on assuring the ‘separation of church and state’. The Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, located in New York has also seen their share of controversy. The school is scheduled to open in the fall of 2009 and will focus on Arabic language and culture. But should public schools celebrate a particular culture. The question is being asked in many circles as the controversy heats. According to civil rights advocates and progressive educators the role of public schools is not to celebrate one culture but to celebrate the pluralism of cultures in a public setting. Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition doesn’t think so. In statement published in the Associated Press he stated, “They’re trying to transmit cultural values and identity, and that’s not the purpose of a public school.” (Associated Press Website 2009). Debate rages over NYC Hebrew charter school Associated Press 2009 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28992198/ February 3, 2009)

Public schools are supposed to be for all ethnicities, cultures, and races aren’t they? And is this really a thinly veiled attempt to wrap the idea of an ethnic or religious charter school within calls for an ‘opportunity to become bilingual’? Is REALM’s proposal an attempt to bring faith-based issues and interests into a publicly funded charter school?

According to an Associate Press report published February 3, 2009 in the U.S. education section of the MSNBC news site, the Hebrew charter school, which still remains without a location or site for instruction, but it is due to open with 150 students in kindergarten and first grade and will grow to 450 in grades K-5. Like other charter schools, it will be taxpayer-funded but the report indicates that the school is expected to raise additional money from private donors and has commitments of $500,000 a year from philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and $250,000 a year from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Even though Steinhardt, the father of Berman, the school’s chairwoman, founded the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life in 1994 with the goal of revitalizing Jewish identity he told reporters the charter school will not promote the Jewish religion but will instead be using secular texts to teach modern Hebrew (ibid)

The Brooklyn Hebrew school is not the nation’s first Hebrew charter school, either. The Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School, located in Hollywood, Fla., also sparked controversy when it opened in 2007. It serves kosher meals and its director is a rabbi, but an expert hired by the district deemed Ben Gamla’s lesson plans “entirely appropriate for a publicly funded charter school. Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an op-ed piece in the New York Daily News that she objected to the Hebrew school for because a public school should not be “centered on the teaching of a single non-American culture.” According to Ravitch:

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 American (ibid)

Religious Charter Schools proliferate the economically devastated landscape of urban and rural communities

The controversy over faith-based charter schools is heating up as ‘religious’ charter schools or ‘ethnically or culturally based’ charter schools begin to proliferate over the national educational landscape. Take the latest controversy over charter schools and religion in New Jersey, for example. If allowed by the New Jersey state Department of Education to open, Hatikvah International Academy Charter School could be the first charter in New Jersey with a mission statement centered on a foreign country. Founders say it would seek to “build partnerships for future cultural and economic opportunities” with Israel. The school would provide “in-depth study of Hebrew and Hebrew culture,” and would open in fall 2010 with 108 students from kindergarten through third grade, according to its application. The founders argue their school would steer clear of religion while teaching a vital 21st-century skill — a second language that would prepare students for the global economy. But critics say the school represents a thinly veiled and unfairly competitive substitute for a local private Jewish school in town that teaches religion and charges up to $13,000 a year in tuition. There is no charge for students to attend a charter school, which is funded by taxpayers. (Keller 2009). (http://www.nj.com/news/mustsee/index.ssf/2009/05/critics_question_taxpayer_fund.html Critics question taxpayer funding for proposed Hebrew charter school in East Brunswick by Karen Keller/The Star-Ledger Sunday May 10, 2009, 9:31 PM)

While opponents argue the proposed New Jersey charter school violates separation of church and state, the school stressed it would abide by requirements separating church and state. The schools website indicated that the school would observe the same holidays as local public schools and the cafeteria would not serve kosher food, although students would not be discouraged from bringing kosher food to school, said co-founder Michelle Ann Wilson (ibid). Yet from the point of view of many residents in New Jersey the new proposed charter represents a problem. Liti Haramaty, a woman born in Israel whose two children attend a traditional public school sees the newly proposed charter school as a violation of the spirit of public education by allocating tax payer monies for identity groups and perhaps subtle religious anchoring. She was one of many New Jersey residents who signed a petition to oppose the new school. Speaking for herself, but also for many who felt a petition to oppose the school was necessary, Ms. Haramaty stated:

I don’t think it’s fair. If people want a specific education for their kids, they should be willing to pay for it (ibid).

But is religion the actual issue when it comes to the proliferation of ‘Hebrew’ charter schools or ‘Muslim’ charter schools or any ethnic charter school? Or is the sole and real issue about providing educational havens based on culture, identity politics, isolation and dis-association, and the chance to become bilingual, as the schools advertise for students: or in the case of REALM, is religion hiding behind the back for the call for racial equality and lowering the achievement gap?

According to PICO:

The Berkeley Unified School District has the largest racial achievement gaps of any school district in the State of California. While Berkeley schools have worked exceptionally well for a segment of the population, catapulting many students on to top tier colleges where they excel as leaders throughout their lives, many others don’t make it past the tenth grade. With the best of our collective efforts, our results are still tragically below acceptable standards. In a school of 3,300, there is only one African-American male taking an AP class. One BOCA supports REALM charter school (http://www.piconetwork.org/news-media/coverage?id=0341).

All this is true and the Berkeley School District is struggling with these issues as are their families and youth within a decaying global economy. What REALM wishes to do is isolate students who suffer achievement gaps from the general public, an act of re-segregation – like isolating some prisoners from ‘gen pop’ Take this from the joint statement in support of REALM by BOCA and PICO:

We enthusiastically support REALM and the 2020 Vision because our intention is not to abandon the Berkeley schools, but rather keep our community focused on achieving better results for our kids, thereby providing opportunities and options for families who would otherwise have none (ibid).

Not so fast, says BAMN organizer and UC Berkeley School of Education alumnus, Ronald Cruz. He contends that public schools were and are the only way to provide integrated, equal education to all students ((Activists Protest City’s Proposed Charter School Riya Bhattacharjee http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2009-10-08/article/33903, October 8, 2009). Cruz adamantly states:

The majority of black and Latino students who would be sent to the REALM charter should be at Berkeley’s public high school and middle schools and have access to these school’s superior resources. But instead, REALM would turn toward the private sector to fund educational experiments for making segregated schooling work for black and Latino students. One hundred years ago, black students relied on private philanthropy to provide them with an inferior, limited technical education. Separate education is unequal education. We will not let Berkeley turn back the clock (ibid)

The New York Brooklyn Preparatory Charter School

Perhaps the issue of religion and charter schools can be more deeply examined by looking at the newly proposed New York Brooklyn Preparatory Charter School, being discussed and which submitted its application in 2009 for a 2010 opening. According to an article in the New York Post in May of 2009 an e-mail circulated by the charter schools proponents clearly stated:

For those parents that are unhappy with the secular education that their children are receiving or feel that their children are not getting the proper academic skills necessary to succ