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Liars For Yahweh! How the Tikun Olam Charter School Got a $600,000 Federal Grant

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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."

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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.
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