A town, founded as a resort, has a small Orthodox community. Years pass. Orthodox, mostly modern, from Brooklyn and Far Rockaway move to this former resort town. Soon they become the majority. They use their majority status to take over the town's school board and to impose spending cuts and other measures on a school system they do not use. They do so because the cost of private day school tuition is very high, and the taxes on their properties used for the public schools is significant. Driving down the cost of public school education they do not use means more money in Orthodox pockets to pay for the private education they do.
Where is this happening? As the NY Times reports, versions of this story are happening throughout the wider NYC area. This particular story is set in Lawrence, Long Island:
“Other communities are watching Lawrence very closely, for fear they may be next,” said Prof. William B. Helmreich, the director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Queens College. Orthodox adherents “are cohesive, they marshal forces and vote as a bloc,” he said. “It could happen anywhere.”…
“It’s ominous,” said Steven Sanders, a former New York City assemblyman who was chairman of the State Assembly’s Education Committee. “This is not going to be an isolated situation. This is a worrisome trend. The common thread is not religion. The common thread is people who don’t feel invested in educating other people’s children. What do you do when a community is significantly comprised of individuals who don’t have a stake in public schools when they’re already spending for private schools? It’s a fracturing of the social compact.”
Orthodox leaders like this member of the school board complain about the quality of the public schools:
“We’re paying elite salaries and getting a mediocre district,” Mr. [Uri] Kaufman said.
Yet, while test score are falling (in part, it seems, because better students have shifted to private schools and in part because of the increased number of poor and minority students in the district), the Lawrence Public Schools are far from mediocre:
Half the students are black or Hispanic, and 36 percent are eligible for a free or discounted lunch, a poverty indicator. “Yet we had seven Intel scholars this year, tied with Bronx High School of Science and fifth in the nation,” Dr. Fitzsimons said. “We’re no slouches.”
Should tax dollars be used to support private religious education? If the answer is yes, can those dollars support a madrassa or a Hare Krishna day school or a Jews for Jesus day school, for that matter?
Of course, if the answer is yes to the first question it must by definition be yes to the second as well.
So what is the solution to the day school tuition problem? Try this:
- Combine schools so each community has a community day school. This saves money by eliminating redundancy. It also increases accountability.
- Use the public school tax model to support day schools. That's right, level a tax on all Jewish community members. This can be done by "assessing" each Federation for the amount of money it costs to educate each student in the Federation's "district."
- Have tuition be paid to the Federation, not the school. This removes the "fundraiser's incentive" to open competing schools. It also means that a student cannot attend the day school unless his family has a relationship with the Federation. This should be a win win proposition for both the Federations and the schools. It also means the day schools can spend their time educating rather than fundraising.
- Is this extreme? Sure. But what we now have is not working and extreme measures are clearly necessary.
- Who will oppose these steps? Mostly haredim, who will refuse to educate their children with non-haredim and with children from competing haredi sects.
The Times also mentions Orthomom, a great JBlog well positioned to cover this issue, although she claims all the Orthodox want is their fair share of busing money and other funds allowed constitutionally, and not funding of day schools per se. I think she's clearly wrong here. What the Lawrence Orthodox clearly want is their fair share of those monies along with a reduction in public school spending aimed at lowering their tax burden. In other words, they want to take more from the public school system while putting in less. They will get more buses; public school students will get fewer teachers and other resources.
Or, to put it another way, the issue for the Orthodox is financial – how much more can we take out and how much less can we put in. For almost everybody else, the issue is how can we best educate our children in public schools. That Orthodox Jews don't notice this difference speaks to the heart of a much larger problem – the way Orthodoxy teaches about and deals with the Other.
[Hat tip: Sy.]