East Ramapo Central School District and How It Can Save American Education
There are many weaknesses and shortcomings riddling the educational system of the U.S. today, but a simple lack—a glaring insufficiency—of education itself should never, ever, be one of them. Such a lack may appear in various institutions and districts, but it is most prominently exemplified to my knowledge by the East Ramapo Central School District (ERCSD) of lower New York State, which for nearly a decade now has been the site of a peculiar battle of public vs private, majority vs minority, diversity vs exclusivity in the administration of pubic education. When the orthodox Jewish population in the district, who paid school tax like all residents but did not send its children to public schools, gained a majority of seats on the school board in 2005 in order to better influence the financial and legislative forces antagonizing to their community, the result was a reduction of funds to public school programs and rapid decrease in the quality of education provided by East Ramapo (Greenberg 10). For years this fiscal quandary persisted in the district, with the scarcity of resources depriving public school students here of a vital education, and tension—confrontation, even—mounting between the discordant public and private school factions. It is a situation that persists to this day, though it has in some measure been alleviated over the course of 2016. But regardless of whether it has found remedy or not, this corrosive scenario serves to demonstrate that the American system of public education as a whole is vulnerable, anywhere and anytime, to such manipulation, such misuse. And it is this larger issue of nation-wide vulnerability of education that must be remedied—and immediately.
The school board is the mechanism of choice for administering education in 49 of the 50 United States, with Hawaii being the exception (Beckham and Wills). According to the Center for Public education, the board’s duty is to ensure that students within its district of jurisdiction receive the highest quality of instruction available for the dollars its residents spend in property tax (“The Role of School Boards”). Education, the Center asserts, “is not a line item on the school board’s agenda—it is the only item” (“The Role of School Boards”). The Board of East Ramapo, however, is in a position quite unlike that of most other school boards, for the body of public school students the board is in place to serve has become a minority in the district. With an influx of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews to the area over the past decade, this district, which spans roughly 35 square miles of Rockland county, has seen it’s student demographics so reconfigured that currently less than a third of East Ramapo’s student population attend public schools—only about 9,000 students, according to a 2014 record (Greenberg 6). Half of these are Latino, 39% African American, and 11% an agglomeration of Pacific Island, white, and mixed race, and it is evident that this community relies heavily on public education for a number of reasons (“East Ramapo Strategic Plan” Exhbt. B, 7). According to a document released by the East Ramapo school Board as recently as September 2016, 85% of the public school students are “economically disadvantaged” (“Strategic Plan” 3); 30% are classified as ‘English Language Learners’ (a figure indicative of the large Central American and Caribbean immigrant communities here that speak little to no English); and 20% suffer from disabilities, which are required by state law to be treated in a public institution if they are to receive the benefit of tax dollars (“Strategic Plan” 3; Ober and Decker 64).
The Hasidic community, comprising a majority not of the district’s total population but of it’s student population, faces its own share of economic difficulty, and also sustains an immense percentage of disabled children, possibly even greater than that of non-Orthodox populaces (This American Life; Wallace-Wells). But unlike the immigrant and non-orthodox families of the district, members of the Hassidim opt not to send their children to public schools in favor of private Jewish institutions called Yeshivas, where classes focus on religious texts like the Talmud and are conducted primarily in Yiddish (This American Life). The Hassidim here is comprised of several ‘courts,’ or congregations of families under one Rabbi, and grows rapidly as an effect of the large number of children each family rears (Justice 170). Paying both property tax to the public schools and private tuition often to multiple gender-specific Yeshivas, this community’s dissatisfaction with the public system of education mounted over the years. Their sense of abuse was exacerbated by the rigidity of the legislation that prohibits tax dollar contribution to special education in private schools, a measure known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that was initially adopted to prevent disabled children from being shelved away in institutions and neglected (Ober and Decker 64, Justice 172). Unable to convince the Board to circumvent or appeal this law, Orthodox parents turned to the obvious recourse that remained them: they ran for Board positions and, deriving power not only from their numbers but from the exceedingly close-knit nature of their society, easily triumphed in elections opposite the less-organized, less-unified, and less-informed public school population (This American Life).
By 2005 the Hasidim had secured a majority on the school board, and by 2014 held all nine Board positions, leaving the pubic school populace entirely without representation and driving a bitter wedge between Board members and the parents they were ostensibly supposed to serve (Greenberg 10, This American Life). The ensuing years saw dramatic alterations to the size and efficacy of East Ramapo public schools: in order to minimize the district’s tax levy, Board members relentlessly chipped away at the public school budget, even as external conditions—the 2008 recession, cuts in state aid, general rise of pensions, union wages, and healthcare costs—threatened the district’s financial stability and rendered every tax dollar of utmost essence (Engage NY 4; This American Life). A thorough 2014 investigation into ERCSD activity authorized by the State Department of Education and conducted by former federal prosecutor Henry Greenberg reveals that the Board laid off 400 school employees between 2009 and 2012 alone, and continued to make cuts in the two years that followed (30-32). The bevy of positions and programs eliminated includes but is not limited to: all social workers; all deans; administrators; counselors; full day kindergarten; summer school; speech therapy; music, dance, and art classes; the entire High School business department; extracurriculars like sports, clubs, and field trips; special-ed teachers; and nurses (Greenberg 30-32). As a result of these sweeping cuts, students in East Ramapo high schools found their class schedules were quite sparse: some had more study halls and lunch periods in a day than actual instruction and confronted the prospect of graduating in five years rather than four (This American Life). This dearth of quality learning was reflected in East Ramapo’s academic performance: the district measures deplorably against neighboring districts and statewide averages on standardized tests in all subjects, and has one of the lowest graduation rates in New York (Greenberg 7-10; NYS Education Dept.).
Furthermore, Greenberg’s investigation revealed that the Board, while imposing these limitations on the public schools of East Ramapo, was increasing “spending on programs benefitting private schools” (Greenberg 33), including multimillion-dollar infusions into transportation for private schools (the district funds gender-segregated busing traversing upwards of 300 unique routes) and special-ed programs in Yeshivas, defying IDEA (Greenberg 14, 33). In addition, the investigation found that between the years of 2009 and 2014, during the most acute period of financial devastation, the Board increased its expenditures on legal counsel by no less than 668% (in the hiring of a law firm known to have helped other school boards with similar demographics fashion loopholes in state education regulations); closed two public schools on false enrollment projections and subsequently attempted to sell the $6 million properties to a Yeshiva at nearly half their value (the transaction was blocked by the State but later took place with the same buyer for $4.9 million); and conducted 70% of Board meetings privately in what it called “executive session,” violating New York’s Open Meetings Law which requires that school board deliberations be accessible to the public (Greenberg 27; 34; This American Life).
All this served to debilitate the education of the students of ERCSD—an education that is their constitutional right (NYS Const. Art. XI sec. 1). Particularly devastating to public school students was the systematic stripping down of their curriculum to the bare essentials (i.e. math, science and english requirements), because this meager handful of subjects, some would argue, may not actually be the only that are ‘essential’ in the greater picture of a child’s life. In fact, to some they may be not essential at all. Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard, suggests that our culture’s elevation of mathematical and linguistic skills as cynosure perpetuates a narrow and incomplete view of “human cognitive competence” (Gardner 508): math and language are only two, Gardner argues, of seven individual types of “intelligences.” The additional five, qualified as intelligences by their “ability to solve problems or fashion products that are of consequence in a particular cultural setting or community” (Gardner 509), are those of spacial, musical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills, and are all present in each one of us “to some extent” (Gardner 508). Gardner writes that this theory, known as the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, “has important educational implications, including ones for curriculum of development” (508), and adds that “it is of paramount importance to assess the particular combination of skills that may earmark an individual for a certain vocational or avocational niche” (521). It can be reasonably inferred, then, that when the cultivation and encouragement of any of these seven human intelligences is excluded from a system of education, as multiple were when the Board of East Ramapo eliminated art, dance, and music programs in public schools, students receive only partial preparation for the world they will enter, and risk graduating without full knowledge of their potentials and abilities and value to the greater global community.
As injustices accumulated and rancor mounted, public school community protest eventually reached the ears of state government. Decisive action on the crisis, however, was not taken until this very year. Previous attempts at reform included a proposition of redistricting made by investigator Henry Greenberg that would divide East Ramapo into two separate districts congruent with the public and private school concentrations in the area, and the recommendation of a temporary three-person oversight committee appointed to survey the district in 2015 that encouraged permanently reserving three of the nine Board seats for public school parents, to be voted on exclusively by public school parents (Greenberg 45; Kobre). But what finally prevailed was a plan modeled off New Jersey’s solution to a similar crisis in the Lakewood, NJ, school district: in June 2016 Governor Cuomo signed into law a bill appointing a fiscal monitor to oversee school board policies and practices in ERCSD (Greenberg 46; NYS ED). This monitor is empowered to veto inappropriate Board decisions, and tasked with creating and executing a five-year plan for “academic and fiscal improvement” (“East Ramapo Oversight Bill” 3), the official document of which was released in September and details exactly what percent increase the district hopes to achieve during each of the next five years in a handful of “priority” subjects (“Strategic Plan” 10-13). The plan professes an intent to restore arts and music instruction, and a month after its release full day kindergarten recommenced for the first time in years (“Strategic Plan” 15-16).
Having at last elicited definitive state action, it would seem that this crisis has found a degree of resolution—a claim which is highly debatable. But this is beside the point. Even if the East Ramapo school district truly is on the road to recovery, another more lethal problem remains unaddressed; and that is the possibility for this scenario to be repeated elsewhere. Because the existence—and scope—of the of East Ramapo calamity identifies an Achilles’ heel of the American educational system: by nature of the very democracy they facilitate, our local devices for regulating education are uniquely vulnerable to subgroup opportunism and the sanctioned plundering of public resources for other ends—ends which in East Ramapo’s case serve to “inculcate beliefs that explicitly reject the legitimacy of the secular state, encourage a fear of pluralism” (Justice 175), and undermine the social system by which they were empowered in the first place. Henry Greenberg touched on the pith of the problem when he remarked that the “[s]tatutory and regulatory scheme for public school governance assumes [the] board understands [the] vital role of public schools” (Greenberg 42). It is this assumption that, entrenched in law, permits nonconforming groups to gain power through “appeals to procedural, local democracy without committing to substantive democracy” (Justice 188), as Rutgers educational theorist Benjamin Justice put it in a 2016 treatise on American school districts and their colonial roots. In Justice’s view, the precariousness of our educational system all comes down to difference of nomos, a term which famed scholar Robert Cover circulated in the 1980’s as meaning a normative world view that “locates” and lends meaning to law (Cover 4). Benjamin Justice argues that public education is compromised when one active community in a district, such as the Hasidim in East Ramapo, “has a truly separate nomos that alienates it from the broader society, indeed positions it against the broader society” (186). “The distinction between public and private,” he elucidates, “is to some degree a question about our shared substantive commitment to the ‘undertones’ of a diverse and democratic civic culture. In an education for democracy, undertones are everything” (189).
So what can be done to assure that Greenberg’s “assumption” (42) becomes a certainty, and that a “commitment to undertones” is truly a that, and not an exploitation of undertones sanctioned even by the educational structures that should promote them? For one thing, as the 2015 committee appointed to review ERCSD suggested, a provision could be implemented at the state level that would reserve a certain portion of School Board seats to public school parents—those whose interests are hitched to the optimal functioning of the system. And the only way to ensure that this would be effective is to reserve not just any portion, but a majority for public school constituents—say five out of nine seats in the case of the East Ramapo board. Opponents of this proposition will call it antidemocratic, an infringement on the people’s choice and hence on the fundamental tenet of republics; and indeed it will render elections decisive only as an expression of preference in political values within public school ranks, rather than as a determinant of what constituency or community will dominate the board. A measure any less drastic, however, would miss the point entirely: providing the public school community with a minority of seats would still allow an alternatively-motivated subgroup to monopolize board decisions.
Benjamin Justice, in fact, argues an even greater removal from democratic process is necessary in districts like that of East Ramapo: in his view the only acceptable solution to the corrosion of education here is the complete takeover of ERCSD by New York State (187). But this would indeed be too drastic to apply to all districts, and all states. Providing the public constituency with a guaranteed majority on the board, however, unlike state takeover, still permits individuals from opposing interest groups to serve on the board and voice their opinions—the private school perspective—at board meetings. This model also preserves the management of schools within the hands of locals who are elected by locals (albeit with an advantage), and the hope is that locals—public school parents, community members, those who have “boots on the ground” so to speak—better represent district interests than a state official in Albany would. We can mourn the compromise to democratic process all we like, but what is the alternative? “A procedurally democratic site devoid of substantive democratic commitment or action” (Justice 170), managed by individuals who prefer not to use the services they administer? I fail to see how the former is any less democratic than the latter, and why New York State, or by extension any state, would decline to ensure quality education to its citizens in the name of upholding a tattered democratic rite that abets its own demise.
The only potential danger of this solution that is worthy of mention lies in the manner of classifying and identifying the public school constituents for whom the vote would be reserved. The operative clauses of this legislation would have to be carefully crafted so as to avoid involving religion and culture as determinants of permissible and impermissible voters and candidates for the reserved seats: only proof of a child’s enrollment in one of the district’s public institutions must be allowed to designate such individuals.
A second, and less likely remedy I’d like to propose for this system-wide risk to education may be found in the dissolution of school districts altogether. Or rather, not the dissolution of districts, as geographical parcels, so much as of district boards—and with them their opinions and interests; their nomoses. In their place, the centralized government of the county would preside over property tax, school policy, and resource allotment, essentially removing the powers of school budget determination and tax levy from the multiple localized sovereignties and concentrating them in a single overarching sovereignty. How would county seats be foolproof to the same vulnerabilities that jeopardize districts, one might well ask? County governments are beholden to a much larger geographical area and their officials are elected by a much more diverse pool of citizens, making the demands and agendas of non-public minorities far less likely to gain precedence than they are in small and less scrutinized districts. In this new model of educational structure, the county would, as the district does now, determine a sum of money necessary to run every school within its borders and set the tax levy accordingly, with an equal burden on each household. These taxes would be amassed into one single county treasury to be apportioned to each public school in the county based on the school’s enrollment. Students who live within a certain geographical radius around a public school or schools (equivalent or similar to current district bounds) would be obligated to attend that school, or one of them if there are multiple close together, and barred from attending the others, as is currently the case. This enrollment-generated determination of funding would incentivize schools to manage themselves in the most effective and appealing way possible in the hopes of convincing as many of their district’s residents to attend as possible, and of avoiding driving even one of their student populace to the arms of private education.
If this were actually proposed, school districts would fiercely resist giving up their autonomy. The educational quality of a school district is currently a deciding factor for families looking to buy homes in suburban areas, and without autonomy districts would have no power to individualize themselves, set their schools apart from others in the county. To prevent each school from losing it’s distinction—or the power to distinguish itself—I would place a modest percentage of the whole budget dispensed to the school at the sole disposal of a committee of school parents or faculty. This small portion of the public funding of education would not be committed to a specific use; instead it would serve the discretion of the school committee in the developing of unique programs or the alleviating of unique needs in that particular institution. The county would continue to provide bussing and textbook aid to private schools, based likewise on their enrollment.
One potential weakness in this county-centric model of the educational system stems from its emphasis on school size. The determination of school funding by enrollment could, some might argue, jeopardize the quality and efficacy of schools in areas with a low density of school-age residents; say, for example, a neighborhood inhabited mostly by retirees. A school in such an area would be confined to smaller facilities than those with more students, and this is fair—but would this school be able to afford every program the big schools could? To ensure that low quantity never equals low quality, that a student’s education is never compromised by the low enrollment of h/her public institution, the county would close a school once it dwindled to a size at which it was unable to sustain standard programs and services, and its student body would be distributed among nearby public schools. This would create a secure, self-regulating system under which every child is guaranteed an acceptable education; within which any “assumption” of concern is supported by the system’s composition; and through which democratic “undertones” are protected and nurtured.
Whether through a small measure, like the reservation of board seats for public school parents, or a large system-altering fix like the dissolution of school districts, it is clear that something must be done to prevent the theft of even one more child’s education. Because the systemic fault line uncovered by East Ramapo’s upheaval undermines the whole point of American education: if our system can’t be trusted to administer proper instruction to those who need it most (those who are least able, not incidentally, to protect it), we fail to advance our underprivileged and impoverished masses, our minimum-wage workers and our immigrants. For, as one-time slave and eloquent abolitionist Frederick Douglas wrote in his memoir of 1845, education is the “pathway from slavery to freedom” (45), and though chattel slavery no longer exists in this country, Douglas’ message can be applied to these oppressed lower classes of modern society. If education shoulders the weight of freedom even half as vitally now as it did in Douglas’ day, the past decade in East Ramapo saw the path to freedom barred before an entire community, for without sound instruction to supply the rising generation here with fluency in English, competence in math, insight into science, and, through these, opportunities for profitable jobs and social mobility, this humble house-cleaning and yard-laboring society has that much less of a chance at achieving stability and prosperity for their children and grandchildren. And it is for this reason—the social one—more than any objection theory or politics has to offer that the domination of a public school board by private school parents is absolutely intolerable anyplace at anytime, and must be precluded permanently. And it is here that East Ramapo can actually serve to benefit American education: having shown us the havoc that unregulated democratic localism can wreak, this school district has indicated to the nation, through its own demise, an opportunity; a way in which we might enrich the society of our future. If we heed its message, if we act now to caulk this chink in our educational system, we have the power to protect untold numbers of school-age children and reconfigure entire lives with the potency education imparts. In a democracy that prides itself on diversity and equality, what more suitable power could we wish for?
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