Home > Uncategorized > In Lakewood NJ, Cultural and Democratic Values Clash with Budget Realities… and it Foretells the Ominous Future of Vouchers

In Lakewood NJ, Cultural and Democratic Values Clash with Budget Realities… and it Foretells the Ominous Future of Vouchers

May 15, 2017

An article by Mike Di Ionno in NY.Com describing the religious and cultural conflicts in Lakewood NJ that emerged from budgetary woes, and it also reveals the ominous future of public education should vouchers take root in our country.

Here’s the situation. Lakewood NJ public school currently house 6,000 students, 95% of whom are Latino or  African American. The town’s population also includes a large number of private and parochial school students, 30,000 of whom are Orthodox Jewish students who attend 131 smaller schools. In NJ, as a result of a bill passed in 1967, public funds are used to transport children to private and parochial school students. Across the State this requires taxpayers to raise tens of millions of dollars to underwrite this cost. Furthermore, in addition to the funds raised to bus children to these private schools, NJ also provides parents who opt out of this transportation service with an $884 annual stipend. And how does all of this play out in Lakewood?

(A)ll those rides to the yeshivas, religious schools and public schools are paid for with tax dollars — $24,582,735, to be exact, and this figure is projected to climb nearly $3 million next year.

But NJ, like most states, has a serious budget crisis (arguably self-imposed because of their reluctance to raise taxes– but that is another post for another day). David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, estimates the impact of that shortfall on Lakewood is particularly onerous given the large number of private school students it transports:

(P)ublic schools are underfunded by $1 billion while $100 million is spent in aid to private schools, and another $40 million to fund non-public-school transportation.

“But transportation aid overall is underfunded by about $200 million, which means that districts are also kicking in from their budgets to make up the shortfall in transporting non-public kids,” he said. “In Lakewood, that amounts to $12 million in public education funds being diverted to non-public transportation.”

The elected school board in Lakewood, as one would expect given the disproportionate balance of students, is dominated by Orthodox Jews and they have not limited services for transportation in any fashion, passing the budget cuts along to the public schools, whose programs, course offerings, and extra curricular activities were compromised. To compound the division between the Orthodox Jewish community and others within Lakewood, a local legislator passed a bill providing funding for increased transportation services for private school students– a bill that targeted those services for only private school children.

Because transportation is locally funded, geographically large districts like Lakewood are required to pay more for these services and when a district, like Lakewood, serves predominantly private school students its local elected officials tend to direct funds to the interests of private school parents and away from the interests of public school parents. Here was a stunning case in point that resulted from the legislation introduced to provide increased transportation services to Orthodox Jews attending small yeshivas:

The bill created a quasi-public Lakewood Student Transportation Authority (LSTA). An executive director, Avraham Krawiec was hired for $150,000 a year.

Alfred Longo was appointed to the LSTA oversight committee in August but said “we still have no idea who makes up the entire consortium, if they’re drawing up the most efficient routes, when they’re going to hold public meetings, or how they’re spending the state money.”

…A particular sticking point, Longo said, was the refusal by Orthodox school owners to allow installation of curtains to separate girls and boys on the buses so that they could ride together.

“Imagine the savings if we didn’t have to bus them separately,” he said.

As I finished reading this, I wondered if NJ passed would pass such a bill if Muslims moved into a small community and decided they wanted to institute small sharia schools. What if a community dominated by parochial school parents wanted to provide enhanced services for their children?

And then I imagined how voucher bills might play out once they are put in place if (or when) parents using vouchers took over school boards and local government boards in the same fashion as Orthodox Jews have control in Lakewood. Would they be concerned if public schools were starved of funds? Would they be interested in speaking up for the voiceless children who are raised in poverty? Would they be interested in unifying the community to help the children? I don’t like the answer that springs to mind….


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