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Let My People Go: Public Education, Jewish Separatism, and School Vouchers

Should religious majorities be allowed to defund schools they don't use?
Let My People Go: Public Education, Jewish Separatism, and School Vouchers

New York magazine has a disturbing story on relations between Ultra-Orthodox Jews and the rest of the population in the western part of Rockland County, New York. The Ultra-Orthodox began moving to the area in the 1970s. Since then, they’ve grown to a majority in the town of Ramapo, where they control a local school board.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the Ultra-Orthodox had much interest in secular education. But they send almost all of their children to religious schools and generally see public schools as a burden to be reduced as much possible. So the board of education has closed schools and cut staff and services to the bone.

What’s particularly striking is that the board members quoted in the piece make little effort to justify these cuts, even as a response to the district’s ongoing fiscal crisis. Consequently, they are seen as a deliberate strategy to drive the non-Orthodox residents out of the area. The board members’ view is that they won the elections, fair and square. As the former chairman put it, “You don’t like it?…Find another place to live.”

Contributors to The American Conservative, myself included, often defend local control against the centralized decision-making. The developments in Rockland County illustrate a weakness of that position. Local control is attractive when citizens of a particular jurisdiction have a shared understanding of their interests, which may be different from those in neighboring towns, counties, and so on. It can get ugly when they are internally split between fundamentally opposed goals.

The tension is heightened by the separatist orientation of Jewish community in Rockland County. The New York piece speaks generically of Orthodox Jews. That is misleading because the sects that dominate Ramapo are distinctive in their hostility toward secular society, which includes, in their view, adherents of other forms of Judaism as well as gentiles.

So what’s to be done? Opponents of the board may have a legal remedy if they show that the district is failing to provide the “sound basic education” that the New York Court of Appeals has held to be required by the state constitution.  That could be challenging, however, because this standard requires that students be prepared for civic participation, but not that they made be attractive to competitive colleges.

There is also a pending lawsuit that accuses the board of fiscal mismanagement. If successful, it could lead to increased oversight. Another option would to convince the state to take direct control, as requested by a petition by angry residents. But the influence of Ultra-Orthodox voters, who are avidly courted by New York politicians, make this effort unlikely to succeed.

In addition to their practical disadvantages, all these possibilities are essentially centralizing. The challenge for conservatives who are sympathetic to local self-government but concerned about the tyranny of the majority is to find approaches that give students the opportunity to get a decent secular education without surrendering to the state.

That’s where school vouchers might come in. Education reformers often argue that vouchers will improve performance. But the more powerful justification is that they help resolve disagreements about the purposes of education–and of government more generally. Although the situation in East Ramapo is extreme, the tension that it reflects will only become more frequent as our common culture fractures. Rather than fighting for control of a single education system, we should figure out ways to let all students go to schools that best suit their intellectual, religious, and cultural needs.



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