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Church, State, and Charter Schools

As an increasing number of religious institutions back charter schools, church and state issues may loom large.

Rev. Reginald Jackson greeting parishioners after yesterday's service at St. Matthew's AME Church in Orange.

The announcement came about halfway through yesterday’s service at St. Matthew’s AME Church in Orange, when the Rev. Reginald Jackson broke from the celebratory music and prayerful message to talk education policy.

Jackson told his congregation of about 200 that he had applied to the state Department of Education to open a charter school, drawing applause.

“We want a charter school that will provide opportunities for every child to be the best they can be,” he said.

And Jackson asked for a little help: “I want you to be in prayer that the charter school be approved.”

Another Chapter

In another chapter in the pastor’s venerable and outspoken advocacy for school choice, Jackson had instantly added an intriguing twist to the New Jersey’s charter school movement.

Jackson, better known for his advocacy of private school vouchers, has applied not just to lead a charter school himself, but has helped steer four other charter applications this year from pastors in the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, of which he is president.

“Charters are all part of choice,” he said in an interview this weekend. “Maybe the first thing people think about is vouchers, but it’s much more than that in providing our children opportunities.

“And with the state very intent on expanding charter schools,” Jackson said, “this is the time.”

Not In the Classroom

Churches’ involvement in charters is nothing new in New Jersey or nationwide, sometimes a sticky confluence but all legal as long as religious teachings stay out of the classroom. Several established charters in Newark and elsewhere have the overt backing of prominent churches.

And it's not just black churches. A Hebrew-language charter is planned for East Brunswick, and another two are proposed in Englewood and Highland Park.

If approved, the new schools would mark a significant increase in New Jersey charter schools with religious backgrounds. With Rev. Jackson, the movement also gains a powerful and sometimes controversial voice.

“Historically, the African American church has always been outspoken on these issues, the social issues, the education issues,” Jackson said.

He stressed that none of the applications are directly from the churches, but only being led by pastors. In each case, it would be a separate nonprofit organization running the schools, with separate boards, Jackson said.

“Most of the people on the boards are not from the churches, but are from business, the community,” he said.

The other applications from members of the council that Jackson cited:

  • Therman Evans Charter School for Excellence (Linden): Rev. Therman Evans

  • Regis Academy Charter School (Camden): Pastor Amir Khan

  • Atlantic Preparatory School (Mays Landing): Pastor Richard Smith

  • Visions of Destiny Academy for Academic Excellence (Trenton): Bishop Herbert Bright

Rules and Regulations

New Jersey is explicit in its regulations on charter schools. They cannot be operated by religious organizations, nor are they permitted to include religious instruction in the curriculum, the same as traditional public schools.

“Charters have been housed in church facilities, churches have raised funds to help charters and church members have volunteered their time,” said Alan Guenther, spokesman for the state Department of Education. But they remain public schools, governed by the same laws and regulations.”

And by and large, nationwide they have kept to those lines, experts say.

“It has been an area of some tension in the charter school movement, and there have been some instances where the boundaries were crossed,” said Katrina Bulkley, an associate professor of education at Montclair State University. “But on the whole, religious organizations are very aware of this concern and tried to keep them separate.”

Hebrew-language schools are an especially tricky point, since they have an inherent link to the Jewish state of Israel. But elsewhere, she said they have so far tread the legal line by focusing instruction on the Hebrew language, much like Chinese and French-language schools.

Still, Bulkley and others said the state still would have to be vigilant that those lines aren’t crossed. The New Jersey Education Association is already critical of the state’s oversight of charter schools.

“Charter schools should not be seen as quasi-private schools that do not need to live up to the standards of other public schools,” said Steve Wollmer, a NJEA spokesman. “Using public school funds to run religious schools would violate the intent of New Jersey's charter school law and would almost certainly invite legal challenges on constitutional grounds.”

Either way, the new dynamic has its political intrigue as well. Bulkley points out the role of black churches in charter schools is especially interesting, given they are historically liberal institutions siding with what is traditionally a more conservative cause. Led by people like Jackson, black ministers have been outspoken proponents of private school vouchers as well.

“It was brilliant move by Republicans to get aligned with them,” Bulkley said. “When this shifted to being about low-income kids, it became an entirely different conversation.”

And yesterday, as his parkside church filled with hymns and amens, Jackson invoked the opportunities available – and not available – to children in cities like Orange that prompted him to file to open the school.

Called the Arete Charter School, it would house up to 300 students in grades K-3. If approved in January, part of an expedited application process, it would open next fall.

“I want these children to have every opportunity,” he told his congregants. “I refuse to believe our children are the only ones who don’t have alternatives.”

“It will be an absolutely excellent charter school, and you ought to give that a hand,” Jackson said.

The pastor raised one more point, as ushers began to line up for the church offering: “And since we have to raise a lot of money for it…“

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