February 28, 2000
The American Jewish community has historically placed a high value on public education, recognizing public schools as the primary route for most children to full participation in the life of our nation. Public schools play a central role as well in teaching democracy and common civic values and in fostering tolerance, respect, and appreciation for the diversity within our nation. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs remains committed to supporting, strengthening and sustaining these schools. As public schools seek to expand their effectiveness and address new educational challenges, the JCPA will support sound innovative programs that improve public education. Proponents of publicly funded charter schools have viewed these schools as a potentially valuable vehicle for such reform.
Charter schools operate free of many state regulations. Adequate oversight, therefore remains a concern. In addition, information about the degree to which student learning may be improved awaits the outcome of studies now underway. Although state charter laws generally mandate that these schools may not violate constitutional requirements regarding the separation of church and state and may not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or gender, the deregulated nature of charter schools may in fact allow schools, wittingly or unwittingly, to contravene these laws. Consequently, careful public oversight and accurate accountability measures are critical. Appropriate safeguards and adequately funded monitoring procedures must be in place to protect against abuses as well as against educational failures.
Properly structured and monitored, however, charter schools may indeed prove to be one among several effective vehicles for education reform within the public school system. We therefore support continued experimentation with these schools and will work to ensure that they operate in accordance with the following criteria:
- Schools, of course, must comply with federal and state anti-discrimination laws, health and safety regulations, and constitutional provisions regarding separation of church and state.
- We strongly believe that appropriate procedures must be in place and enforced for regular periodic assessment and evaluation, including both fiscal and academic accountability.
- Schools must be non-sectarian in program, admission policies, employment practices and all other operations.
- Teachers and students should be required to meet educational performance standards consistent with those for other public schools.
- Adequate safeguards addressing working conditions and rights should be incorporated in contract and employment provisions for school employees.
- Recognizing that charter schools are given autonomy from regulations in exchange for accountability for results, the focus of these schools should be on raising academic standards. As a consequence, every effort should be made, as well, to involve parents in the operation and in the decision-making process of these schools.
- Appropriate safeguards should be in place to ensure against racial, ethnic and economic segregation, and to prevent discrimination based on disability or special need.
- Finally charter schools should be required to share what they learn in order to promote improvements in other public schools.
We recognize that there are concerns about the risk of diverting to charter schools scarce public dollars urgently needed to strengthen seriously under-financed traditional public schools. Therefore, we must work simultaneously to re-evaluate and rationalize state funding formulas so local districts are not penalized when charter schools are established.
Finally, support for developing charter schools must not deflect attention from the challenges facing traditional public schools. The nation must move forcefully to address serious inadequacies and inequalities in public schools, especially urban schools, which enroll over 40 percent of low income and minority children. Initiatives are required to ensure that financial and other resources reach the schools that need them and that highly qualified teachers are recruited, retained and prepared for students in all schools. The traditional public school should and will continue to educate the great majority of our children; therefore priority concern for its health is inherent in our concern for America’s future.