3 min read
As the Chicago teachers continue their strike, I was reading the story of another school district "in crisis." The Journal News  has a cover story today about East Ramapo in Rockland County, NY, a community on the West side of the Hudson. The district is comprised primarily of Orthodox Jews who send their children to private Jewish day schools and working-class African-Americans, Hispanics and Haitian immigrants who send their kids to the public schools. There are about 20,000 Orthodox Jewish students in the district and 9,000 public school students. But since 2005, the school board has been controlled by Orthodox Jews, who have continued to slash the school budget. Hundreds of staff members have been laid off, kindergarten has been cut to half day and many of the extracurricular programs have been cut. The Orthodox, many of whom are poor themselves, do not want to continue paying high property taxes for a school district they are not using. New York's are, by the way, the highest in the country.

Things are now at a breaking point, according to the Journal News:

A public interest law firm representing some 200 parents filed a federal class-action lawsuit against school board members and administrators past and present, contending they violated students’ constitutional rights by diverting millions of dollars to private schools. In addition, 14 of the board’s most zealous critics filed a possibly game-changing petition with state Education Commissioner John King, asking him to remove five board members, all Orthodox, for a "pattern of impropriety" and to appoint a state monitor for the district.

No one is claiming that the board members were improperly elected but the parents of the public-school kids feel as if their interests are not being properly represented by the members of the school board. And when it comes time to get the school budgets passed, the public-school parents suggest that the Orthodox community is more "organized." Also, because the district is required by the state to provide a variety of services to kids even if they are in private schools (including bus service and specialists for children who have special needs) the public school parents have accused the board members of misusing public funds.

The board members, for their part, have accused their critics of anti-Semitism.

This is not an easy case. Thousands of New York families who send their kids to private schools choose where to live based on where the property taxes are lowest. The equivalent house in two adjacent towns in Westchester county could easily have a property tax difference of $15,000 a year depending on the school districts where they are located. So when you get a critical mass in a particular place of people who want lower property taxes and have no obvious interest in maintaining high quality public schools, it could really change the direction and the priorities of the governing bodies.

There are, however, some factors that have led to this standoff that have nothing to do with the Orthodox Jewish community. First, the monstrous property taxes are supporting the overwhelming public pension benefits. One could imagine that the Orthodox families wouldn't feel so strained if they weren't stuck with the bill that resulted from decades of public officials caving to union demands.

Second, the parents in the East Ramapo district have been lead to believe that more money will mean a better education for their children. Plenty of middle and upper class parents believe this too, but some of the districts that spend the most have the worst results. Indeed, there is no correlation between the money spent per pupil and the quality of the education. And the Journal News article doesn't suggest that the education has gotten worse since the board takeover, just that there have been layoffs and other cuts. But maybe East Ramapo hired too many people when times were flush.

The last question raised by this conflict is what would happen if there were a voucher program in East Ramapo. What would happen if everyone in the district below a certain income level could see a certain amount of their tuition paid for? What if the black and Hispanic kids could see more of their tax dollars go toward a quality Catholic school? Would they be so bitter about fewer dollars going toward the public schools? Would they be as upset with the Jewish community? And the Jews wouldn't have to strain to pay all those private school tuition and the high property taxes. The only losers in this deal would be the teachers unions.

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