There have been plenty of developments in the East Ramapo Central School District in the weeks since Dropout Nation detailed how the district’s board has subjected poor and minority children attending its schools to educational abuse. As you would expect, this is happening with nary a peep from the American Federation of Teachers and its president, Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten even though she grew up near the suburban New York school system in the Rockland County seat of New City, and even as she makes much hay about equity and empowerment in cities where reformers are improving education for children.
Last week, an oversight panel monitoring East Ramapo led by former New York City Chancellor Dennis Walcott detailed the ineptitude of the district’s board to the Empire State’s Board of Regents. While Walcott and his team noted that East Ramapo’s board had taken steps such as securing $1 million to deal with removing mold from school buildings, they also noted that they still weren’t seriously addressing the district’s failures to provide high-quality teaching and college-preparatory curricula. This includes the fact that a mere 14 percent of the kids who graduated in East Ramapo’s Class of 2014 scored at college-ready levels on New York State’s battery of tests. Monica George-Fields, who is focusing on the district’s academic operations, noted that the board wasn’t asking “‘why are these scores so low?'” and that they had no sense of urgency about addressing the crisis. As a result of the school board’s unwillingness to improve teaching and curricula, teachers and school leaders are doing very little in terms of addressing the learning issues of East Ramapo children.
A day after Walcott’s team laid out the problems in East Ramapo, the Journal News detailed how the district was also failing to keep tabs on how the 80 Orthodox Jewish yeshivas (or parochial schools) into which the district siphons special education dollars (as well as supports in the form of transportation of kids to those schools) are doing in improving student achievement. Under a 77-year-old state law, East Ramapo is required to ensure that any private or parochial school receiving taxpayer dollars must be “substantially equivalent” to that of traditional public schools. But as the district’s superintendent, Joel Klein, admits, such oversight isn’t happening. As a result, the schools are focusing far less on providing the children in their care with college-preparatory curricula that they can use to emerge out of poverty, and putting more emphasis on religious instruction; this would not go on in either Catholic diocesan and Protestant schools. Some Orthodox Jewish families, who have long been under tremendous social pressure within their communities to not pursue better-quality schools, are now demanding that the district actually do its job and stop funding parochial schools that aren’t doing right by kids. Walcott and his team have also jumped into the fray with plans to inspect the private schools East Ramapo hasn’t checked out.
As your editor has mentioned earlier, what is happening in East Ramapo offers plenty of lessons to reformers. Particularly to hardcore school choice advocates who have opposed all but the most minor forms of accountability for vouchers and charter schools, the evidence of low-quality education in East Ramapo’s parochial schools should give them pause. You can’t expand school choice without assuring taxpayers that the programs will be operated effectively and that they will do a better job than traditional districts of improving student achievement. That the district has little data on the performance of the schools also shows why high-quality data (including that coming from state standardized tests) is needed; families cannot make smart decisions — or break out of group-think within their circle about education — without it.
East Ramapo also bears out the wisdom of states such as Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan launching state-run turnaround districts, and states overall meeting their constitutional responsibility to structure public education and step in when necessary. The district also serves as another example of why the myth of local control embraced by traditionalists and some movement conservatives is damaging to children regardless of background. Reformers in the Empire State, in particular, should push Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislators to amend the state school takeover law passed earlier this year, allowing for all of East Ramapo’s operations to be put under control of a statewide turnaround district.
[The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, should also launch an investigation. We know that some erstwhile reformers don’t agree. But I’m not sure they are reformers anymore anyway.]
Reformers and others should cast shame and ridicule upon East Ramapo’s board. They deserve it because the majority of them are Orthodox Jews, members of a historically-discriminated minority, one which has seen the worst that man can do to man, and they are engaging in state-sanctioned bigotry against other minorities. They deserve ridicule because their deliberately corrupt and inept operation of the district is educational malpractice that is morally indefensible. As with low-quality and criminally-abusive teachers, there should rewards posted for the removal of every East Ramapo board member.
More importantly, tackling East Ramapo goes beyond politics. As Children of God and members of the Family of Man, we are commanded to take care of the least of us. As Jesus Christ told the disciples in Matthew 25:40, when you feed our most-vulnerable, you are feeding him. This nutrition isn’t just in the form of food. College-preparatory learning, high-quality teaching, and cultures of genius are the intellectual nutrients that help our children become adults able to feed themselves. For all of us, transforming East Ramapo is one more opportunity to stop the academic and, ultimately, economic impoverishing of children by adults who are supposed to take care of them during the school day.
Given Weingarten’s professed demands for educational equity and empowerment poor and minority communities — especially at a panel held last week at the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Summit (which is funded in part by AFT dollars) — you would think that she would have the union stage operations similar to those to oppose systemic reform in New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia. In fact, AFT could have told one of its 219 six figure-earning staffers to team up with groups such as Strong East Ramapo and pull together hunger strikes, protest marches, and other campaigns. It would likely cost AFT less than the more than $2 million it has spent in Philadelphia or the $902,103.20 wasted on the effort of its Chicago local to oust Mayor Rahm Emanuel from office.
Yet save for complaints on Twitter from Weingarten and apparatchiks such as Leo Casey of the AFT-controlled Albert Shanker Institute about Dropout Nation‘s commentary, the union and its affiliates in the Empire State aren’t mobilizing to address the educational abuse happening in the district. Even the AFT local there has done little. This isn’t shocking. For all of AFT’s professed concerns about poor and minority children and the communities in which they live, the union merely uses black and brown people as props for preserving its declining influence. As far as the union is concerned, black lives, especially those in East Ramapo, don’t matter.
Even as it doles out some of its $24 million in political spending to buy the allegiance of outfits such as the Schott Foundation for Public Education and to influence black and Latino congressional leaders through their various nonprofits, AFT does all it can to oppose any effort that would actually give poor and minority families leading roles in shaping education for their children. From the unsuccessful efforts of its Connecticut affiliate four years ago to stop the passage of a Parent Trigger law, to its advertising campaign this week calling for the passage of a reauthorized version of the No Child Left Behind Act that would eviscerate the accountability measures that have helped more children attain high-quality education, to its efforts in California and elsewhere to defend teacher dismissal rules that keep laggard and criminally-abusive teachers in classrooms, to locals in Minneapolis and elsewhere defending the overuse of harsh school discipline, AFT shows little concern for anyone’s children, much less anyone from poor and minority families.
Your editor expects Weingarten and her minions to offer more complaints about Dropout Nation‘s coverage of AFT’s inaction in East Ramapo. Their time would be better-spent teaming up with communities and reformers in the community on behalf of children there.
Featured photo courtesy of Strong East Ramapo.