Fair fight? When a religious group takes over a public school system

One of the recurring themes at the recent Program on Education Policy and Governance conference on improving education was that the more you expand the franchise (i.e. allow people to vote), the better the education. Good education seems to be one of the first things people with voting power demand.

Good education seems to be one of the first things people with voting power demand.

This is why I tend to see America’s current education free-fall as a sign of a diminished democracy as much as it is a pedagogical failure. And this is why a fight in East Ramapo Central School District, a growing suburb of New York City (just twenty miles north of Manhattan), is so fascinating.

As the New York Times’ Peter Applebome describes it in Saturday’s paper, Orthodox Jews have taken over the district’s school board (they have seven of nine seats). The problem? Eighty-five percent of the students in the district schools are black or Hispanic. Even worse, reports Applebome, most of the Jews in the district send their children to private schools (where the enrollment is 19,000, compared to 8,000 students in the public schools).

Not surprisingly, a group called Padres Unidos has petitioned the State Education Department to remove the Jewish board members and, also not surprisingly, Ramapo board president David Schwartz called the group, in Applebome’s words, “chronic complainers.” The cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic divide problem is complicated by finance questions. Not only has board president Daniel Schwartz suggested eliminating graduations as “a superfluous expense,” the board sold two empty public school buildings to yeshivas for less than what Padres Unidos says the buildings were worth.

In a perfect world, the state will ensure that no laws were broken and take appropriate action based on those laws. In our imperfect world, however, it looks like a distortion of democracy. For one thing, in a variation on a theme explored by Terry Moe in his recent book, Special Interest, one could reasonably argue that East Ramapo public schools have been hijacked by a special interest. Moe talks mostly about teacher unions’ outsized influence over board and budget elections. In East Ramapo, reports Applebome, “[T]he board’s makeup reflects the electoral power of the well-organized Orthodox Jewish community.”

Good or bad? Should stakeholders (like parents of students) or taxpayers (like the Jews who don’t send their children to the schools) control public schools? Board president Schwartz, an Orthodox Jew, thinks it’s enough to be a citizen. He told the Times,

If you want to say that Orthodox Jews don’t have the right to legislate for public school children, then by extension, black people don’t have the right to legislate when it affects white people and women don’t have the right to legislate when it affects men.

But is the game rigged? In off-cycle elections, which are what New York has (school votes are in May), turnout is always low and thus gives added weight to special interests. And this raises the question of whether people who don’t even live in the district—e.g., policymakers and legislators in Albany and Washington, D.C.—should have say in these matters? Laws protecting unions (e.g., seniority rules, Last In, First Out, automatic contract extensions), mandating spending (until last year, districts could impose “contingency” budgets without voter approval), as well as off-cycle votes are all too common.

These are the governance problems which give rise to suggestions like those of the Koret Task Force: that the money follow the child, which would break the monopoly in East Ramapo, as well as the chains of state and national policymakers. As Checker and Mike have written,

Our “marble cake” policy structure of overlapped local, state, and national responsibility for schools has proven more adept at blocking or slowing needed change than at advancing it—a problem aggravated by our practice of (in most places) separating “education governance” from the regular leadership structures (and election cycles) of cities and states.

In other words, the clash in East Ramapo is not a fair fight.

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