Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lakewood's Voucher Program

Lakewood Public Schools’ inclusion in the Opportunity Scholarship Act is redundant. Lakewood Public Schools is already a voucher program.
This week the focus is back on the Opportunity Scholarship Act, fondly known as the voucher bill. Yesterday Rev. Douglas K. Batchelder and George V. Corwell argued in NJ Spotlight that “trapping children in failing schools ruins lives: theirs and those of the taxpayers. In spite of much time and money, these failing schools have been unable to reach children who live in poverty. Parents of these students and taxpayers are looking for a viable alternative that will educate the children and save money.” Today in the Star-Ledger former Governor Jim Florio slaps back, “Now, we have this voucher initiative to further divide us into those who will be ready for the knowledge-based economy and those who will be left to fester in failing schools from which we have siphoned off the most motivated students.”

(Is this what we’ve come to? How many kids “fester in failing schools?” Is the main deficit of the voucher bill, then, that it would rescue some children from rot and not all? Equitable putrification, please!)

On a newsier front, NJ Spotlight reports that the initial pool of 13 districts included in OSA is quickly shrinking due to political calculations. Orange is out, and Rev. Reginald Jackson, a major proponent of the bill, may pull his support. Here’s a suggestion from your friendly neighborhood blogger: pull Lakewood.

The Ocean County school district has attracted a fair amount of attention over the years. Orthodox Jews make up 79% of the population and, according to the New York Times, about ¾ of those children attend private Jewish schools. The public schools are 90% black and Hispanic, and struggle not just academically but financially. Every one of the seven schools in the district is labeled a School In Need of Improvement and the high school graduation rate is listed in the DOE data base as 37.6%.

While the comparative cost per pupil for Lakewood Public Schools is $12,320, the total cost per pupil is $19,652. For comparison’s sake, the state average for comparative cost is $13,383 and the average total cost is $15,538, a much smaller discrepancy.

Why the big difference? All districts are required to pay for private placements for children with disabilities if there is no suitable in-district or public county program. And it seems that Jewish kids with special needs mostly go to Lakewood’s private School For Children With Hidden Intelligence, or SCHI. According to the Asbury Park Press, 122 Lakewood students attended last year. SCHI’s tuition per child, not including mandated summer services, has been approved for next year at $91,952 per child. That's a tuition bill of $11,219,242, or about 10% of the district's total budget. While the school disavows any religious affiliation, “it’s known locally as a school for Orthodox families.” (See here for more detail.)

Lakewood Public Schools’ segregation of Orthodox children with disabilities from non-Jewish kids with disabilities has been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and the State DOE.

Why would the Lakewood Board of Education go along with such profligacy and discrimination? Why risk non-compliance with the federal mandate that children with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment? For answers, check out the minutes from a Lakewood school board meeting . Meetings are dominated by Michael Inzelbuch, who serves as both the Board attorney and, until recently, was listed as Supervisor of Nonpublic Special Education. (Base salary $122K; scroll to the bottom of the link.) He also has a private practice with the tagline, "Every child deserves an appropriate education at the school district's expense." Each billable hour for his services is $250.

The support for Inzelbuch’s continued dominance is not unanimous. At last year’s reorganization meeting the Board narrowly approved his continued contract as Attorney; some board members claimed “he used the board as a ‘rubber stamp." In addition, Lakewood Board of Education President Leonard Thomas resigned two weeks ago because “he had grown tired of demanding basic rights for public school students."

Here’s some other rubber-stamping on the part of the Lakewood School Board as revealed in the Minutes:
  • The Board regularly awards contracts to parents of children who attend SCHI for $74.92 per day for “a total not to exceed $15,733.20 to transport their child to/from School for Children with Hidden Intelligence.”
  • While districts are required to provide 4-5 weeks of ½ day summer programs for students eligible for Extended School Year, generous Lakewood Public Schools pays for residential summer camps for children who attend SCHI. Boys go to Camp Mogen Avraham at $6,500 per summer, which advertises itself as place for children to experience “unique kochos in a healthy, and positive, Torah atmosphere.” Girls go to Camp Miskon Sternberg which describes itself as “a setting for Orthodox girls” at taxpayer cost of $9,000 per summer.
(It’s unclear where the black and Hispanic kids with disabilities go to summer camp.)
  • The Lakewood School Board originally hired Inzelbuch because he was so successful in his private practice of suing the district for costs of SCHI. “According to civil rights advocate James Waters, Inzelbuch filed the lawsuits on behalf of Orthodox parents seeking to place their special education children at the school of their choice and not where the district assigned them. Waters said the parents wanted their special needs children to attend Lakewood's School for Children with Hidden Intelligence (SCHI), which enrolls a majority of Orthodox students. SCHI is a private school.”
  • Many Jewish parents chose to send their preschool children to a program called Tiny Tots. When the program was removed from the State DOE’s list of approved public preschools, an emergency meeting was held by the parents with Board members present. According to the Lakewood Scoop, a “parent said to the Frum board members, ‘We voted you in to represent us and this is what you do to our children? For five years the Tiny Tots program ran successfully and when we vote you in and you repay us by trying to force our children into the public school. You should all resign in disgrace.’”
Enough already.

Opportunity Scholarship Act advocates have their own opportunity: to keep their noses clean. The inclusion of Lakewood on the list of approved districts is a distraction from the program's promise to rescue those festering impoverished children from failing schools. The Talmud says, "whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world." Don't undermine the rescue attempt by tainting its intentions. Leave Lakewood out.

(Correction: Lakewood Public School's bill from the School For Exceptional Children for 2010-2011 is not, as stated above, $11.2 million. It is actually $12.2 million.)

3 comments:

kallikak said...

What about kids trapped in failing FAMILIES?

As regards abuse of existing and prospective Ed regs by special interest groups: we've seen it before in NY. Why should NJ be any different?

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Tamara Wolf said...

Just wanted to point out that the average cost per public school student was for BOTH regular and special need students.

The private school you mentioned is for severely handicapped children- of course their per student cost is much higher!