When Local Control Runs Amok: A Case Study of Lakewood, NJ and East Ramapo, NY

New Jersey has Lakewood and New York has East Ramapo, two cities where the vast majority of residents are Jewish Orthodox families who primarily send their children to private yeshivas (Jewish day schools). Both school districts also have smaller cohorts of low-income minority children who attend traditional public schools. So, what's the problem?  In both Lakewood and East Ramapo the traditional districts are overseen by school boards that are beholden to Vaadim, councils of rabbis that run their towns. Majority rules, but minority families lose.

I’ve covered Lakewood for years, probably far too much. That’s because it’s personal. I’m not an Orthodox Jew but I’m still a Jew. My grandparents are all immigrants from Eastern Europe and my mom's mom, who barely outran Hitler, used to reduce every incident, no matter how trivial or significant, to a simple rubric: “Is it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?” In other words, does global warming or  Joe Lieberman’s candidacy or the Challenger disaster or the closing of Gus’s Pickles on the Lower East Side make Jews look bad or good to the goyische world?

In my mind, the Orthodox communities in Lakewood and East Ramapo make Jews look bad: self-serving and dismissive of the educational needs of low-income children.

But enough about Grandma. Lakewood, a school district in Ocean County, has 20,000 Orthodox students that it transports (in gender-specific buses) to private Jewish day schools at an annual bite of $20,000,000 out of its annual operating budget of $114,661,752. Five thousand three hundred poor and mostly Latino children attend bleak public schools. Lakewood High School, for example, is one of N.J.’s “Priority Schools” because achievement is so low. Last year only 6.1% of Lakewood High School students received a score of 1550 or above on their SAT's, a measure of college and career-readiness.

More than $25 million of the operating budget pays for private special education placements, almost all for disabled Jewish children to attend a private Jewish special education school called the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence that has an annual tuition rate of $95,123.70 per child. The school board is controlled by the Orthodox community.

The ACLU has filed suit. The FBI has investigated charges of corruption and accounting malpractice, and so has the Department of Education and Education Law Center. This year the state appointed a Fiscal Monitor, Michael Azzara, who has the power to overrule the Board. (He has on several occasions, mostly having to do with fiscal matters.)

Then there’s East Ramapo, about 30 miles north of N.Y.C. in Rockland County, where non-Jewish families find themselves in a comparable situation. According to the Wall Street Journal, “about 24,000 children in the district go to religious schools, mostly yeshivas. About 8,500 children, who are mostly poor and black or Hispanic, attend public schools in East Ramapo.”

The State Commissioner recently appointed former New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott to investigate charges of fiscal misallocations. An earlier report found that “the district’s finances “teeter on the edge of disaster” and cuts of more than $30 million in recent years “ripped out the heart of the academic program” in public schools. Forty percent of the budget is consumed by transportation, special education, and administrative costs. The board is controlled by the Orthodox community.

Now, one could argue that everyone in either town who pays taxes is entitled to transportation to private schools and everyone in either town is entitled to special education for their disabled children and everyone in town is eligible to vote in school board elections. But those truisms don’t take into account the unusual power invested in the Vaadim who tell the majority of people how to vote. And the community listens. It’s just part of the culture.  Click on this and you’ll see how it’s done in Lakewood. Same goes for Ramapo.

There’s a sense in which the necessity of state intervention in both districts is a microcosm of why many parents of disenfranchised kids worry about the new federal education law. Local control is the mantra of Republicans and unionists, of opt-out lobbyists and anti-testing promoters. It’s also the mantra of Vaadim. Sometimes a higher body needs to step in to preserve the educational rights of children in exclusionary communities. In Lakewood and East Ramapo that higher body is the state, in the form of state-appointed monitors.  But if it’s the state that is the governing body that is misallocating funds and cutting off  opportunities for minorities and the federal D.O.E. is emasculated, then there’s nowhere for the disenfranchised to turn to for help.