American Federation of Teachers President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten constantly professes concern for ensuring that poor and minority people have real voice and control over the direction of public education in their communities. She and her union (along with the front groups it finances) also spend plenty of time criticizing reform efforts in places such as New Orleans, Chicago, Newark, and Philadelphia on those grounds.
So you would think Weingarten and AFT would be protesting all day and night in East Ramapo, N.Y. After all, the district’s black and Latino communities, whose children make up 87.6 percent of the 8,109 students attending its schools, have been subjected to educational malpractice by the board, which is majority white and Jewish. The fact that Weingarten has been silent on the abuse heaped upon East Ramapo’s children says plenty about where her concerns — and that of the union — truly lie.
Since 2005, when a coalition of Orthodox Jewish residents (whose children, who would otherwise attend traditional districts, go to parochial schools) gained control of the board, East Ramapo has essentially done all it can to deny high-quality education to poor and minority children. This includes cutting instructional time for the district’s kindergarten classes by half, and the elimination of Advanced Placement and English Language Learner programs; the latter is especially problematic since many of the children attending its schools are emigres from Haiti and Latin America.
Thanks to reductions in teaching and school leadership staffs, children in the district’s high schools find themselves spending more time in lunch rooms (five lunch periods during the school day in some cases), than in classrooms. Little wonder why 55 percent of East Ramapo’s students in third-through-eighth grade performed at level one, or below basic proficiency on the Empire State’s battery of standardized tests, double levels statewide.
While starving the children educationally, East Ramapo’s board has done plenty of what can politely be called self-dealing on behalf of synagogues and other Jewish organizations within the district. In 2010, the district unsuccessfully attempted to sell the building that housed the former Hillcrest Elementary School to Congregation Yeshiva Avir Yakov for $3.2 million, $7 million less than its assessed value. New York State’s education commissioner would stop that sale, and the state’s attorney general would later charge the appraiser selected by East Ramapo to handle the deal with taking a $5,000 bribe from the synagogue. [East Ramapo would eventually sell Hillcrest to Avir Yakov for $4.9 million, still far less than its assessed value.] A year later, the district’s attempt to sell another school building, the former Colton Elementary, to Congregation Bais Malka for use of its Hebrew Academy for Special Children, was also stopped by Empire State officials.
Another aspect of East Ramapo’s self-dealing lies with an otherwise-legitimate concern: The desire of Orthodox Jewish residents to provide children with real physical and cognitive disabilities such as Cri-du-chat (which can cause severe speech and intellectual delays) with high-quality education. Within the past 10 years, East Ramapo’s move to pay for private-school tuition for Jewish children in special education has accelerated to a point that the district spends more money on them than on the children it serves in traditional districts. In 2012-2013, the district spent $30.4 million on salaries and contracts for special education programs versus $5.1 million on salaries for teachers working with kids in the traditional district itself. This, by the way, doesn’t include the millions spent on providing public transportation for the kids attending the parochial schools.
The self-dealing by East Ramapo’s board has, in turn, reflected itself in its fiscal mismanagement. Four years ago, New York State’s comptroller chided the district for giving out $2.4 million in no-bid contracts for professional services, allowing board members to receive health insurance without paying required premiums, and failing to maintain proper inventory records for $2.4 million in textbooks handed out to synagogue-run schools. Declared the state comptroller in that report: “[East Ramapo’s] Board, along with District officials, failed to fulfill its stewardship, oversight, and leadership responsibilities.” Two years later, the state comptroller cited East Ramapo again for failing to come up with realistic budget numbers. And last year, the state pointed out that the district spent $7.3 million on legal services the previous school year, a six-fold increase over levels five years earlier. All of this ultimately means children, families, and taxpayers are constantly being shortchanged financially and educationally.
Families of children forced into East Ramapo’s schools, along with others, have fought vigorously to push the district into doing right by children. But the district’s board has done whatever it can do to keep the status quo ante. Four years ago, the board’s vice president at the time, Aron Weider, was charged with violating state election laws after he was caught photographing and intimidating potential voters during a budget vote. With seven of the district’s nine board members coming from communities with nearly all kids (including their own) attending private schools, the district has essentially become captured by those who don’t have any reason to care for the issues affecting black and brown children. The lack of respect for those kids was demonstrated in a scene reported by New York two years ago, in which the lawyer for East Ramapo’s board called a high school student protesting a round of cuts by the district “a piece of s—.”
With the district’s board doing all it can to not serve poor and minority children and behave with fiscal prudence, Empire State officials have had to step in. Two years ago, now-former Education Commissioner John King appointed a special monitor to push an overhaul of the district. Former New York City Chancellor Dennis Walcott who has since succeeded Greenberg in the role, has made it clear that he won’t tolerate the district’s shortchanging of children. But the state education department’s hands are tied. Last June, a proposal by State Assemblypersons Ellen Jaffee and Kenneth Zebrowski to allow state education officials to seize control of East Ramapo was killed by state senators at the behest of Orthodox Jewish groups.
One can easily understand why East Ramapo hasn’t grabbed the attention of reformers; after all, it is one of the smallest of the nation’s perpetually-failing districts. But there are plenty reasons why they should pay East Ramapo mind now. The district exemplifies the educational failures of traditional education governance, the obsolescence of the traditional district model, and why local control defended by traditionalists and movement conservatives unconcerned with education is almost always undemocratic in practice. The failure of the Empire State to seize control of the district the way Louisiana officials did with New Orleans a decade ago exemplifies the importance of states undertaking their proper, constitutional role in overseeing public education and stamping out the failures of districts in serving children.
East Ramapo’s move to pay private school tuition for Orthodox Jewish children in special ed while shortchanging equally-disadvantaged poor and minority peers offers cautionary examples of how not to expand school choice and why any overhaul of American public education must be done thoughtfully. The struggles of families of children attending the district’s schools to stop this educational neglect shows why all states should pass Parent Trigger laws that allow families to overhaul failure mills and negotiate forcefully with school leaders. Even reformers focused on English Language Learners can find plenty of reasons to be concerned about and learn from what is happening in East Ramapo.
Most-importantly of all, reformers should be mad about East Ramapo. Outraged because the district’s board and leadership are essentially engaged in the kind of educational malpractice that can easily be compared to that of Jim Crow segregationists in the American South six decades ago. Angered because the board members are doing to the children they are supposed to serve is educationally abusive, intellectually indefensible, and morally unconscionable. Incensed because one historically-discriminated minority, one which has seen the worst that man can do to man, is engaging in state-sanctioned bigotry against other minorities. Indignant that almost nothing is being done about it. Reform outfits should be in East Ramapo right now protesting what is going on there.
But one has to wonder: Why isn’t Randi and AFT in Ramapo now? After all, the teachers’ union’s local, the East Ramapo Teachers Association, has been hit hard by the district’s budget cutting. There’s also the fact that Weingarten grew up in Rockland County, where East Ramapo is based, in fact, grew up near the district in New City (which is serve by the Clarkstown Central district). Given that personal connection, you would think Randi would be leading protests in East Ramapo and getting herself arrested for the cameras as she did in Philadelphia two years ago.
But so far, neither Weingarten nor AFT has said a peep about East Ramapo, even as it has spent millions on beating back reform efforts in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Chicago. Neither has the union’s Empire State affiliate, New York State United Teachers; as it has in the past few years, it spent nearly all of this year focused on opposing overhauls of teacher evaluations, expansion of charter schools, and fighting against the use of standardized test score growth data in transforming education for children. In fact, it did nothing to support the passage of Jaffee’s and Zebrowski’s plan.
Perhaps Weingarten and AFT have said nothing about East Ramapo because the union is stretched too thin with other concerns. Given the sums it lavishes on demagoguery attacking the successful reform of public education in New Orleans, the $902,103.20 spent on Jesus Garcia’s failed bid to unseat Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the millions spent so far on opposing reform in Philadelphia, and the $29 million spent in 2013-2014 on preserving its influence, this explanation doesn’t suffice.
Maybe it’s because East Ramapo is too small a concern to land on Randi’s radar. But AFT manages to issue streams of e-mails about the protest in Chicago over the three-year-long closing of the Walter H. Dyett High School (enrollment: 160 kids as of 2012-2013), and spend lavishly on its Reconnecting McDowell public relations campaign (which is focused on a West Virginia district that served 3,537 in 2012-2013, or less than half of East Ramapo’s enrollment). So,no.
So why, pray tell, has Randi and AFT ignored East Ramapo? It could be because the district’s failure to properly represent poor and minority children exemplifies why the myth of local control the union perpetuates is exactly that. It may be because East Ramapo demonstrates the wisdom of states such as Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan launching state-run districts charged with overhauling public education, as well as the sensible nature of moves by New Jersey to take over existing traditional school systems. It might be because the inability of AFT’s East Ramapo local to protect its rank-and-file shows the impotence of the outdated model on which the union is built. It is even possible that it has to do with the realization that what East Ramapo’s board treatment of poor and minority children (along with their families) is no different in substance than what AFT has done since the Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle of six decades ago.
Or perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, when it comes down to the concerns of poor and minority children, Randi Weingarten and AFT just couldn’t care less. Black and brown people are merely tools for the preservation of the union’s declining influence.