Racism in East Ramapo, New York: It's Time to March

November 21, 2044  The Huffington Post

I do not make accusations of racism lightly. I am not talking about personal biases. I am talking about institutional practices that appear to be condoned at the highest level in New York State government. Read the post; look at the evidence. It will be hard to disagree.

Nine thousand Black and Latino children attending East Ramapo, New York public schools are warehoused in over-crowded, under-funded failing schools because a school board controlled by a White religious group is using public school dollars to subsidize their own children who attend religious schools. District school budgets have been defeated four of the last five years and eight of the last eleven, the highest rate of budget rejection in New York State. Meanwhile Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York State, Merryl Tisch, the Chancellor of the State Board of Regents, the governing body for education in New York, and John King, the Education Commissioner, have all remained silent. That is why it is time to march against racism in East Ramapo.

In 2012, Tisch charged that New York City was warehousing minority students in failing schools and demanded that New York either improve or shut down failing schools. However Tisch, who attended and taught at private religious schools and is on the board of a number of religious institutions, has remained silent on the situation in East Ramapo. Student performance in the district is disturbing. On 2013-2014 English Language Arts Common Core aligned exams, almost half of the students in the east Ramapo school district (46%) scored at the lowest level, well below proficient, compared to one-third statewide. Only 2% of the students exceeded stands, one-fifth of the state average. Math scores were even worse. This is what Tisch calls warehousing and I call institutional racism, but State Education and the Board of Regents have failed to act, which makes them complicit. That is why it is time to march against racism in East Ramapo.

On November 18, 2014, The New York Times reported that a monitor appointed by New York State to investigate the East Ramapo School District in Rockland County found the elected local school board favored Orthodox Jewish students who attend private religious schools over Black and Latino students in the public school's they are pledged to govern. The district is now bankrupt because of all the money channeled to private religious schools despite major cuts in public education spending. Instead of calling on the Board of Regents to take over the district, which Black and Latino parents have been demanding at least since 2012, the monitor's report recommended that the State Legislature allocate additional money to the district and appoint a "fiscal monitor" with the power to overrule the school board's and the district superintendent's decisions. It would also take legislative action to authorize the state to take-over and administer the East Ramapo school district. New York State can use provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) and the Race to the Top to intervene in the district. The East Ramapo school board is in clear violation of a series of state regulations listed in 100.2 of the New York State Education Department's General State Requirements. However given politics in the state, a take-over or even massive intervention is very unlikely to happen. That is why it is time to march against racism in East Ramapo.

Hank Greenberg, the state monitor who investigated East Ramapo, has close ties with both Andrew Cuomo and Merryl Tisch. He served as his counsel when Cuomo was State Attorney General. In 2011, he acted as a special investigator for the State Education Department when it reviewed its procedures for evaluating student assessments.

Prior to delivering his report to State Education, Greenberg told reporters he did not believe the East Ramapo school board acted "out of base or venal motives." Rather, their concern about the children from their own religious group had "blinded them to the needs of the entire community." This is surprising language from a lawyer given that Greenberg's job was to investigate legal and financial impropriety, not determine whether the school board was moral but blinded by good intentions. However, I am not a lawyer. Greenberg found the district's funding pattern to be "unique" in New York State and charged the faction in control of the East Ramapo school board of "abysmal" fiscal management and noted the district was teetering "on the precipice of fiscal disaster." This is an example of institutional racism, whether school board members think they are acting in good faith to meet the needs of children from their own religious community. That is why it is time to march against racism in East Ramapo.

Since 2009, the non-venal majority in control of the East Ramapo school board has eliminated 245 public school positions, including special education teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, and elementary school assistant principals. It replaced full-day kindergarten with half-day, eliminated instrumental music for younger children, ended transportation for field trips, reduced athletic and extra-curricular activities by fifty percent, closed the summer school, and depleted the district's emergency reserves, money it is legally required to maintain for insurance, liability and unanticipated costs. That is why it is time to march against racism in East Ramapo.

Meanwhile, district spending on programs benefiting private religious school students have increased substantially. From 2006-7 to 2013-14, district spending on transporting private school students specifically increased nearly 77 percent. From 2010-11 to 2013-14, the cost of providing special education for students enrolled in private religious schools increased by 33 percent. More than 23,500 students are transported daily to private religious schools in East Ramapo, 18,000 by private companies that are essentially subsidized by the school district. Special education students receive services in forty different religious schools, which are also essentially subsidized by the school district. These subsidies to families that send their children to private religious schools make up over one-third of the district budget.

In his report, Greenberg found that many of these subsidies were not required by law. He also accused the East Ramapo school board with interfering with the ability of public school parents to question and challenge the board's operation by unlawfully conducting most of its meetings as closed sessions and not permitting public comment at open meetings until late at night. That is why it is time to march against racism in East Ramapo.

In Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the State government must ensure children "the opportunity" to receive a "sound basic education." It is legally the responsibility of the state government and the Board of Regents to act in the East Ramapo school district. Because they have refused to act, it is time to march against racism in East Ramapo.

The East Ramapo school board frequently dismisses critics by charging them with anti-Semitism. I am a critic, I am a Jew, and I am not an anti-Semite. The conflict over East Ramapo is not fundamentally about Black and Latinos versus Jews. Although the local school board is dominated by members of a Jewish religious sect and Tisch and Greenberg are Jews who have both have been recognized by Jewish religious and civic organizations, neither Cuomo nor King is Jewish. This conflict is about public school dollars being diverted to private religious schools by a politically connected religious group and public officials twisting and turning not to act. That is why it is time to march against racism in East Ramapo.

Note to Reverend Al Sharpton: It is time to march against racism in East Ramapo. I understand why politicians such as Andrew Cuomo, Merryl Tisch, and John King are playing it cautiously; they do not want to offend political allies. But I do not understand why you and the National Action Network remain silent on the issue. Is it to accommodate a move to the "mainstream" with new corporate sponsors and your new role as a media figure and political insider? You have been taking a lot of hits in the press recently. Maybe this can help rebuild your reputation. If you are still an activist against racial injustice and decide to march against racism in East Ramapo, I will march with you. It is time to march.

 


 

Alan Singer

Social studies educator, Hofstra University, my opinions, of course, are my own