Ramapo School Board Bashing Spills Onto NYT Op-Ed Page

The latest in a long-running series of attacks on the largely Orthodox East Ramapo school board came in the form of an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times.

The opinion piece was written by New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch and David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a public school advocacy group. And, like its predecessors, it presented a host of highly charged and equally highly misleading assertions.

The writers claim that the school board has “denied” public school children “their state constitutional right to a sound basic education”; that it “persistently failed to act in the best interests of its public school students”; and that it “slash[ed] resources in its public schools [while] vastly increas[ing] public spending on private schools.”

The first two claims are demonstrably false, and the third one is misleading to the point of slander.

The facts:

  • State funding to all New York school districts, including East Ramapo, is based on a statutory formula involving property values, income levels and public school student numbers. Education funds are provided accordingly; wealthier districts, fairly, receive less government funding than poorer ones.
  • East Ramapo’s demographics — approximately 24,000 students in nonpublic schools, only about one-third that number in public schools — and relatively high property values, result in a skewed picture of the public school population’s wealth, resulting in state funding that treats East Ramapo as if it were one of the wealthiest school districts in the state, when it is in fact one of the poorest.
  • The school board is required by law to provide students in all the district’s schools, public and private alike, with textbooks and bus transportation; and to provide special education services to all schoolchildren in an educationally appropriate setting.

And providing those legally mandated services is precisely what the board has done, in accordance with its statutory obligations.

Unfortunately, after those expenditures were responsibly made, insufficient funds remained to maintain some extracurricular programming in public schools — things like music or sports teams. Those are valuable activities, to be sure, but they are not part of students’ “constitutional right to a sound basic education.” And with no money to continue the supplementary programming, the board had no fiscally responsible choice but to end them — until the state provides increased funding to the district.

As East Ramapo Superintendent Joel M. Klein (who is not an Orthodox Jew) noted, “You can blame it on Jews, you can blame it on yeshivas, but the flawed state aid formula and funding cutbacks are the real culprit.”

Thus, the school board’s following the law is what has earned it the opprobrium of Ms. Tisch, Mr. Sciarra and others. They seem unaware, or choose to ignore, the salient fact that all schoolchildren, even Orthodox ones in yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs, need and are legally entitled to textbooks and a way to get to school.

The insinuation that imagined sinister, charedi villains (some do indeed wear black hats) on East Ramapo’s school board have systematically plundered the pot of local education funds to favor yeshivos over public schools is, bluntly put, an invention. And a deeply irresponsible one, to boot, as it has fostered blatant resentment of Jews in the local community. There have been outright anti-Semitic comments made in public places, including school board meetings. One parent suggested that, “Well, we want to send the Jews back to Israel.” Another compared the board to “the soldier who has committed war crimes who claims he was only following orders.”

Indeed, with increasing national attention being focused on the East Ramapo school district, local anti-Semitism is going viral and metastasizing into something far more dismaying, far more dangerous.

When a newspaper like The New York Times features an op-ed provocatively entitled “A School Board that Victimizes Kids,” the text of which surrounds a prominently displayed “kiddush levanah osiyos” pull-quote announcing, “In a mostly Orthodox Jewish community, minority students suffer,” the harsh glare of incitement envelops us all.

It is refreshing to discover that not all East Ramapo’ans are being hoodwinked by the rabble-rousers. Consider the words of Brendel Charles, a black councilwoman for the town of Ramapo, who admitted to Tablet Magazine that, while “she originally believed the problem was that the ultra-Orthodox members of the board were making decisions without regard to others in the community,” she came to realize, after her husband joined the school board, “that … the school board members weren’t trying to hurt the public school kids,” but rather that “we don’t have the money” to provide the services needed.

Would that Ms. Tisch and Mr. Sciarra reach such enlightenment.


 

Rabbi Shafran is Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs.