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Nation’s Largest Jewish Organization Concerned Over Proposed Religious Involvement in Charter Schools

Following Major Address by President Clinton

Contact: Raanan Weintraub, (202) 387-2800

WASHINGTON May 5, 2000 —In response to President Clinton's speech before teachers and students at our nation's first charter school, City Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, released the following statement:

Today, in observance of National Charter School Week, President Clinton spoke before students and teachers at the nation's first charter school, City Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since City Academy opened its doors in 1992, nearly 1,700 charter schools -- created by parents and teachers, and operating under exemptions from most state laws that regulate public and private educational institutions -- have opened around the country, serving some 433,000 children in 36 states and the District of Columbia. (In contrast, the traditional public schools serve 47 million children.)

Although there is no small amount of confusion about the charter school movement, and about the precise nature of these new schools, as the President made clear today these schools are, at root, public schools. As such, as he emphasized, they must be accountable. Today, virtually every state with a charter program is grappling with issues of accountability: if schools are not accountable to particular geographically-designed oversight entities, then who will determine to whom the school is accountable? Which school board? Which parents? Which neighborhood associations?

Accountability, however, must go beyond measurements of student performance and the assignment of oversight to a specific local or state authority; the charter school movement must remain accountable to the Constitution and to our bedrock national values. We need concerted effort by federal, state, and local authorities, in cooperation with parents, teachers and community leaders, to clarify the unique freedoms that make charter schools special, and the constitutional restrictions that apply to all schools accepting public money. As we find new and innovative ways to reform our educational system, we must not abandon fundamental constitutional principles. Enthusiasm for the potential of charter schools should not blind us to those who would use this new model as a back-door mechanism to channel public funds to private and parochial schools.

So while we join with the President in acknowledging the promise of charter schools around the country, we are particularly concerned by the President's encouragement of charter school partnership with religious organizations. As the President must recognize, charter school partnerships with businesses differ in not just in degree but in kind from partnerships with sectarian institutions. Given the wide-spread uncertainly on this score, we commend the President's call for guidelines on religious-educational school cooperation, and we hope and trust that the Department of Education's guidelines will provide new strength to both educational innovation and bedrock constitutional principles. Since charter schools face less daily oversight than do traditional public schools, the guidelines for charter schools need to be explicit and precise in their protection of our First Freedom.

Spelling out what charter schools can and can not do, and working within the parameters so ingeniously designed by our nation's framers, we can make significant progress toward the signal goal of creating better schools and a stronger America.


The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, representing its 895 congregations across North America, whose membership includes 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the 1700 rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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