Question: How does a charter school whose multiple applications have been riddled with lies and misrepresentations and has been rejected three times by a state education department get approved for a $600,000 grant from the federal government?
Answer: The federal government admittedly does not routinely fact-check grant applications for charter schools, and does not allow the private consultants it hires to look at the grant applications to look at any information other than what’s in the grant application.
That’s right, an applicant for a federal grant for a charter school can say whatever they want to in their application, true or false, and nothing they say will be questioned, even if their application has already been exposed as a work of fiction.
This is what’s going on right now with the proposed Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School, and the epicenter of the fight to stop this school from being approved or getting any federal grant money is my own little town, Highland Park, NJ.
I got involved in the fight against this charter school about a year ago, when one neighbor sent another neighbor my way with a petition opposing the school — a school that is overwhelmingly opposed by the residents of Highland Park, a town with an exceptional public school system and no need for a charter school of any kind, let alone one designed to provide a free religious education to a small number of students at the expense of our public school students.
Needless to say to anyone familiar with my work, I was immediately drawn in by the church/state separation issue of a religious charter school, and initially got involved for that reason, but as I soon found out, this went way beyond a simple church/state issue. The degree to which the founders of this proposed charter school have lied about all aspects of their school on their applications in their quest for approval is nothing short of astonishing.
Now, the founders of this Hebrew Language charter school, led by Highland Park real estate agent Sharon Akman, will insist that the purpose of their proposed school is not religious, and that it will not cater specifically to Jewish students. So, to give the appearance of this not being a specifically Jewish school, they claimed on their charter application that the location of the school would be a Catholic church, St. Mary of Mount Virgin in the neighboring town of New Brunswick. The problem? They lied about that — one of the many whoppers they told in their application. They have no agreement whatsoever with this Catholic church, as Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski of the Diocese of Metuchen has repeatedly made clear.
On May 24, 2011, Bishop Bootkoski sent a letter to New Jersey’s Acting Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf, stating:
“It has been brought to my attention that the Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School has stated that the parish of St. Mary of Mt. Virgin Church, New Brunswick, NJ has entered into a leasing agreement to operate a charter school at the facility of St. Mary of Mt. Virgin Church. This is not so. In order to clarify the situation, I wish to state that an agreement has not been entered into by the Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School and St. Mary of Mt. Virgin Church, and will not be approved by the Diocese of Metuchen.”
You’d think this flat denial by the bishop about her charter school having an agreement with this church would have made Ms. Akman change this piece of misinformation in the subsequent applications, right? Wrong! She proceeded to repeat this lie in both her application for her federal grant three months later, and her next (fourth) version of her application to the New Jersey Department of Education in October 2011, five months later.
When Bishop Bootkoski found out that Akman was continuing to use her fictitious agreement with the church, he wrote another letter to Cerf, dated December 14, 2011, again denying that any such agreement existed or would ever exist:
“It has recently been brought to my attention again that the Tikum Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School is applying for a charter for the City of New Brunswick. In May 2011, they claimed to have entered into a leasing agreement to operate the school at the facility of St. Mary of Mt. Virgin Church, New Brunswick, N.J. As I stated in my May 24, 2011 letter to you, no such agreement was approved at that time nor will it be in the future with St. Mary of Mt. Virgin Church or any other Roman Catholic entity in the City of New Brunswick.
“Therefore, I wish to restate that such an agreement has not and will not be accepted by the Catholic entities in New Brunswick or the Diocese of Metuchen.”
Now, you’d think that since providing documentation of a “lease, mortgage or title to its facility” is required to open a charter school, this little matter of Ms. Akman not having the facility she claims to have would have squashed her chances for approval, right? Wrong! Tikun Olam made it through the NJ Department of Education’s first round of cuts in December, which left 17 of the 42 schools that applied in October (which was Akman’s fourth try) in the running for approval.
But, as the New York Times reported last week, the lie about having secured this Catholic church as the location for their school was just one of many lies told by Akman and company, who also claimed to have the support of and/or agreements with quite a few other individuals and institutions that they didn’t have the support of or agreements with. But, of course, with the federal government’s prohibition on looking at any sources outside of the information provided by the grant applicant, none of the letters from these people and institutions denying that they supported the school could be taken into consideration when making the decision to approve a $600,000 grant to the school!
Akman also claimed in her application to have a relationship with the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, although the Associate General Counsel at Rutgers wrote the following e-mail on May 26, 2011 stating that the museum has no relationship with the school.
You recently sent me a letter inquiring as to whether the Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School founders have “established relationships” with the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum” of Rutgers University as claimed in its charter school application.
The application does not describe what kind of relationship the founders have with the Museum. They could be members, they could be contributors, they could volunteer for the Museum. There is, however, no formal relationship between the founders in their capacity as founders of Tikun Olam and the Museum.
I called Ms. Akman and she confirmed that there was no formal relationship with the Museum.
And yet, even after acknowledging in May that her charter school had no formal relationship with the museum, Akman has continued to claim, in both her October 2011 state application and her federal grant application, that the school has an established relationship with the museum.
Then there’s the support that Akman claims from Assemblyman Peter Barnes and Jun Choi, a former mayor of Edison, another town that would be affected by her school. Akman claims in her application that Barnes and Choi “promised to help make connections and build a diverse student body.” But both Barnes and Choi have made it clear that they do not support the school and never gave Akman any such promise of assistance. Neither did Heather Ngoma, the African‐American Director of the New Jersey Charter School Resource Center, another alleged supporter claimed by Akman.
As the Times article said in reference to the federal policy of not allowing outside sources to be used in determining whether or not a charter school should get a federal grant:
“[I]f Ms. Akman writes that Assemblyman Peter J. Barnes III supports the charter, the federal consultants are not permitted to interview Mr. Barnes, who would have been happy to tell them that he does not.
“This prohibition against using outside information is intended to ensure that no special measures are taken to either favor or hinder an applicant, although what it really invites is fiction writing.”
Akman, who has made almost no public statements since the fight to stop her charter school began, declined to speak to the Times, but did give a rare statement to News12 New Jersey regarding her claims about the support of Assemblyman Barnes and former Edison mayor Choi, saying, “We’re not misrepresenting anybody. If they subsequently changed their mind about it, that’s a different thing. But we did not misrepresent them.” Really? They flip-flopped? Is that Akman’s explanation for the statement of non-support from the Bishop of Metuchen and the statement that her school has no agreement with the Zimmerli Art Museum, too?
Other claims made by Akman include the alleged support of New Brunswick’s predominantly Hispanic and black community, although no community survey has been done and the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., the Civic League of Greater New Brunswick, and the Puerto Rican Action Board all do not support the school; the crazy notion that a Hebrew school will appeal to low-income Muslims; and that the school will serve students with problems such as “poverty, crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, academic failure, dropouts, gangs, and other challenges,” as well as special needs students, all without even having as much as a single guidance counselor on its staff. As for its plans on how it will get qualified teachers and provide anything even close to the education available in our public schools, well those aren’t really clear either, but the details of all of that pesky ‘how on earth are these people going to provide anything like an adequate education?’ stuff would require a whole other post.
In a nutshell, what we have is a small group of people who want to start a Jewish charter school for a small community of Jewish students but who need to make it appear that they are starting a secular school that will be chock full of students from every demographic in what is an extremely diverse area in terms of income, race, ethnicity, and religion. But nobody is buying that.
As Highland Park Rabbi Steven Miodownik wrote to acting Education Commissioner Cerf last spring:
“Proponents of the Hebrew language charter school have carefully placed a fig leaf over their agenda of forcing the state to fund their ‘free’ alternative to private Jewish education, but it is not the job of the State of New Jersey to provide religious instruction for its children; that must be left up to our excellent private schools.”
But, what did those federal government consultants who aren’t allowed to look at anything other than the information provided by the grant applicant base their approval on when it came to diversity and community support? Well, all they were allowed to base it on was Akman’s answers to questions like the following on her grant application:
Selection Criteria – Extent of community support for application
1. Note: The Secretary encourages the applicant to describe how parents and other members of the community will be informed about the charter school, and how students will be given an equal opportunity to attend the charter school.
The applicant provided a detailed description of the ways in which it has conducted community outreach to help ensure diversity of the student population at the proposed charters school. The applicant cites meeting outcomes from a number of sessions with leading political and civic leaders who have expressed an interest in helping to tell the community about the proposed charter school. The applicant has proposed hiring a Community Outreach Coordinator to assist with helping members of the community who do not speak Hebrew (i.e. not Jewish) about the school and its commitment to repairing the world or perfecting the world. The applicant has also indicated that a proposed facility for the charter school is a former Catholic school located in a mostly minority, low-income New Brunswick neighborhood. The applicant believes this is a strong statement of the proposed charter school’s commitment to ensure that an equal opportunity to attend the school is given to all.
There are no weaknesses in addressing the this application requirement.
Right, there are “no weaknesses in addressing this application requirement,” unless, of course, you consider the whole thing being a pack of lies to be a weakness!
While the $600,000 federal grant will only be received if the school is approved by the N.J. Department of Education, Ms. Akman wasted no time in informing the acting Education Commissioner that her grant had been approved, giving her school a potential leg up in the state’s final decision, expected this week.
Finally, getting back to the church/state separation aspect of this Hebrew school, which is what got me involved in the first place, I have to include the ludicrous reason given by Akman in her effort to make her Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School sound like it has a necessary, secular purpose. Ready for this? Akman claims that the teaching of Hebrew is vital to America’s national interests because the United States does so much business with Israel (even though the official business language of Israel is … um …. English).
Last spring, I was part of what we called our “documentation committee,” a committee formed to thoroughly examine the version of school’s charter application that was current at that time. For my part on this committee, I did exactly what anyone familiar with my other work would expect me to do — I checked out the sources cited by the school’s founders to support their ridiculous ‘teaching Hebrew is vital to our national interests’ claim. And what I found, of course, was that they had misquoted and misrepresented the sources they cited to make them support their claim.
While the school’s latest application has dropped parts of what was debunked in the previous application, this will give you an idea of the depths of scholarly deception — on top of all their other deceptions — that these Liars For Yahweh have stooped to in their attempt to get their school approved.
Ms. Akman and her cohorts should not only be flatly denied a charter to start their school, but should be prosecuted under Title 18, §1001 of the U.S. Code, the federal statute prohibiting the making of false statements to federal officials, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison for anyone who “knowingly and willfully makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” or “makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry.”
Additional resources: Mother Crusader, the blog of Highland Park resident Darcie Cimarusti, who since last spring has made it her full-time job to stop the Tikun Olam charter school; Speak Up Highland Park; and Save Our Schools NJ.
Chris Rodda is the Senior Research Director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), and the author of Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History.