June 2012 Church & State | Featured


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 co-principals, 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 Turkey. Based on the findings of The New York Times, it appears that the schools benefit Turkish contractors and teachers – at the expense of everyone else. On construction projects, the schools have reportedly ignored lower bids by non-Turkish contractors in favor of using Turkish firms, and they have hired many Turkish teachers, some of whom are not U.S. citizens, claiming that American teachers don’t have the proper skills;

• In Minnesota, the state ACLU affiliate filed a lawsuit in 2009 against the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a charter school that allegedly promoted Islam.  ACLU-MN Executive Director Chuck Samuelson told Minnesota Pub­lic Radio that the school “illegally transferred money to its religious landlords, promoted Islam through its Arabic curriculum and its connection to the after-school religious program, and used taxpayer funds in excess of $1 million to renovate buildings to the benefit of their religious land­lords.”(The school has since declared bankruptcy and closed, but in March agreed to pay the ACLU attorneys’ fees in exchange for the suit being dropped. Litigation continues, however, against the school’s founder, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.)  

Still another issue is that many times when a Catholic school becomes financially untenable, which has become increasingly frequent, it reopens as a charter school. Such conversions have occurred in New York, Florida, Texas, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Often, administrators, teachers and students at the schools remain the same, while religious instruction and symbols are supposedly removed.

As a result, some question whether Catholic teaching really goes out the door along with the crucifixes. It’s a common issue, and AU has wondered whether church schools can truly change their stripes when they become public.

In Manatee County, Fla., Palmetto Christian School, a fundamentalist academy, converted into a public charter school, sparking concern among civil liberties activists.

“This is problematic particularly if you have the same personnel as when it was a private religious school,” Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “One wonders if the people running the school will treat it as purely secular, purely a public institution?”

Proponents of charter schools often overlook these negatives because of the supposed improved education they offer when compared with standard public schools. The problem is, studies on charters show decidedly mixed results.

In 2009, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that “37 percent [of charter schools] deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”

Of the 2,403 charter schools studied, 46 percent showed student math gains that are “statistically indistinguishable” from the average learning growth among their counterparts at traditional public schools. Meanwhile, the study found that at 37 percent of charter schools, math improvement by students was “signifi­cantly below” what those same students would have achieved if they had enrolled in standard public schools instead.

 “The overall findings of this report indicate a disturbing – and far-reaching – subset of poorly performing charter schools,” the study said. “If charter schools are to flourish and deliver on promises made by proponents, a deliberate and sustained effort to increase the proportion of high quality schools is essential.”

AU’s Lynn says charter schools should be monitored closely to ensure that they comply with the law.

“We know that charter schools often blur the lines between public and private schools, so there is a greater risk that charters will illegally use taxpayer money to promote religion,” Lynn said. “We should monitor these schools closely, and I encourage people who think a charter school in their community is misusing taxpayer funds to contact Americans United.”