New York Sun Editorial
August 29, 2007
If one thought the chorus of concern over the proposed Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn couldn’t grow any broader or any louder, it has just done so. The Department of Education’s Arabic-themed school has now drawn the attention of a group founded to preserve the memory of Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American author and poet whose name the school bears. The Friends of Gibran Council stated in a press release yesterday that, based upon available information to date, the proposed school “would not honor the legacy of a great poet, an artist who achieved greatness in the US as an emigrant fleeing Lebanon where his community has been suffering persecution in their ancestral home in Lebanon at the hands of religious powers.” The release further points out that Gibran’s ancestry was Lebanese, Christian, and Maronite, making the act of attaching his name to a school dedicated to Arab language and culture a bit suspect.
While the concerns of the Gibran Council are to be taken to heart – including concerns over troubling radical associations with which the school has been plagued from day one – we can’t help but be drawn toward the conclusion that this whole kerfuffle has grown out of hand. And needlessly so. We have no apologies for the skepticism with which we and some of our columnists have greeted this school. Its former principle, Dhabah “Debbie” Almontaser, could not credibly distance herself from organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has not, in our view, played a constructed role in New York; she refused to answer questions from this newspaper as to whether she viewed Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations. But few of the issues raised in respect of the school put it at the top of our worry list for New York.
What has bothered us is the sense that in establishing this school the government is entering an area that ought to be left to the market. Some insist the school is either designed to cater to Muslims – or will end up doing so, even if it’s not originally designed to do so – and is a prima facie affront to the First Amendment. Others say the school is designed to offer an alternative to madrassas. We don’t lack for confidence in either the mayor or the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, who shut down a bid to have Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi, a professor known for making sloppy accusations against Israel’s American backers, train New York City teachers on how to teach the Middle East. But the perceived need for an Arabic school in the city is precisely the kind of situation best addressed not by going to the taxpayers but by a system of true school choice through vouchers.
That is a system under which New Yorkers of Arab or Muslim background – or any other background – who want to go to a school specializing in Arabic would be able to do so. They would be able to do so whether the attraction of the school is that it teaches about Arab culture and history or whether it teaches religion. It would put all parents on the same footing in respect of the school, honoring their choices without imposing on others. Some might pick the Arabic-themed school. Others Catholic schools. Others ultraprogressive and secular schools. Each to his own. No doubt Ms. Almontaser would still be in her job, and the city would be relieved of tug of war over the specifics of any given school meeting state standards. If this incident has done anything, it has shown the need for school choice in New York City – the need for the kind of freedom that was sought in America by a great poet named Khalil Gibran.