Last Sunday, listeners of This American Life caught an hourlong episode devoted to the story of a school district in East Ramapo, New York, an area whose residents include a mix of African-Americans, Latinos and ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews–and where 2/3 of the school-age children are Jewish. The religious Jews–whose children generally attend private religious schools (yeshivas)– grew frustrated with the financial burden of paying both property taxes for public schools and tuition for private schools, plus a sense that their children were not getting the public funds to which they were legally entitled. Around 2005, the religious community organized to bring out their members en masse to vote in school board elections, giving ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews a majority, meaning that people who did not enroll their children in the public school system were now deciding its future and direction. This has met with accusations of cutting the budget, refusing to raise property taxes appropriately and underselling properties to yeshivas. Sala Levin spoke with This American Life producer Ben Calhoun about the legal complexities and interpersonal tensions swirling around the story. (This interview has been condensed and edited for space and clarity.)
Can you give a brief overview of the situation in East Ramapo?
Essentially what you have is a suburban school district, about an hour north of New York City, where private school students vastly outnumber public school students. And the private school students are predominantly the children of Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox families that send their kids to yeshivas in the area. For a long time, there was a lot of tension between the two groups.
The Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox, for understandable reasons, don’t like the fact that they pay suburban-level property taxes to fund a public school system that they don’t use, and then have to spin around and pay private tuition to send their kids to private schools. So that was one source of tension.
Another source of tension was over special-education students who require expensive therapies and services. They’re entitled to public dollars to get those services, but in order to do so, there’s a slew of federal regulations and state regulations that usually require them to go into public school settings, which was something that the parents didn’t like.
Then the last source of tension is that the private schools are entitled to lines of funding that come out of the public budget. It works that way in every district around the state, things like bussing and textbooks. And, for a long time, there’s been tensions over whether or not the private school students were getting enough, when it came to those services.
So those all came to a head around 2005 to 2007, when the Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox community organized and started electing candidates to the school board to control the public system that they, themselves, didn’t use. Then what followed from that was sort of a political turf war and cuts to the public school system, which are hugely complicated and stem from a number of factors. But an enormous, enormous factor within those is the failure of the board to raise property taxes in keeping with other districts in the area.
How can students who require special-ed get placed in private rather than public schools?
The way that the regulations go is that if parents want to put their kid—a special-ed student—in a private school placement, using public money, they have to ask for that from the district. And typically there’s such a strong preference for public placements that the districts say no. From my reporting, I understand that that’s across the board from district to district, because the guidelines are so clear.
If the parents don’t like that decision from the school board, they can ask for an impartial hearing from the state. This is a quasi-legal proceeding where a state-appointed intermediary comes in and makes an impartial determination about what should happen. And, in general, those typically fall on the side of the school boards because, again, the regulations are so clear.
But in the case of East Ramapo, what has been happening in these disputes is that the school board has a prerogative to resolve legal matters. So if the parents ask for the impartial hearing, the school board has a prerogative to say, “Oh, actually, you know, no, no, no. That’s fine. Just go right ahead.” In keeping with the letter of the regulations and the law, that’s something that they’re able to do. In terms of the goals of the law and the way that that process is set up to work, which is an adversarial way, it’s the opposite of how the thing was designed.
How much consideration do you think should be given to the needs of special-ed kids, especially special-ed kids who are coming from Hasidic or ultra-Orthodox families? Hasidic advocates have argued that placing Hasidic special-needs children, whose families speak Yiddish at home, in public schools would lead to ostracism and would not be in the best interest of the child. How do you respond?
I can’t opine in terms of what the regulations should be or what their stated goals are, or just how they’re put into practice around the country. I’ll say, as a parent, I have a huge amount of empathy for those parents who want to keep their kids with their peers. These are kids that have a lot of obstacles and challenges to overcome and maybe emotional difficulties to start out with.
So I think that there’s a huge argument to be made that the law doesn’t fairly serve their situation and that the placement that the law considers to be the most therapeutic and the most helpful for them might, in their case, create an additional impediment and additional challenges for them. As a parent, I have such empathy for the parents in that situation. I think it’s one of the real complexities of the situation in East Ramapo.
What are the demographics of East Ramapo? In other words, if every eligible non-Jewish resident voted, would that be enough for them to get a majority on the school board?
It’s complicated. There are a lot of illegal immigrants in the public school community. So they’re not eligible voters. The person who does the closest analysis of eligible voters in the district and who, I think, has the most accurate estimates of anybody out there is Steve White, who’s in the story. He’s one of the activists. And just for his political purposes, he keeps very close track of the numbers of registered voters. His best guesses point to the district being split about 50/50 right now, maybe slightly more Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox.
But for a long time, it was a more interesting situation politically, where the parents of the Hasidic and ultra Orthodox kids were the minority, but their kids were the majority. So it creates this really interesting question about the interests of the majority.
One of the thorniest parts of the story is the question of anti-Semitism. How prevalent do you think it is? What sort of attitudes did you generally find?
There’s really troubling things that will happen. There was a situation where kids were throwing rocks at a bus [of ultra-Orthodox schoolchildren], and a kid got hit in the head, and it fractured his skull. Then there are smaller things within the activist circles. There are little flare-ups where people will call them “black coats” and talk about “they” a lot. I think there’s one way that people can say “they,” and there’s another way that they can say “they.” It gets to be a fine line between what’s troubling and what’s not.
During a two and a half hour conversation with one young woman in the story, she just really deliberately kept saying “private school community” or any number of different ways of steering around the word “they.” And I asked her on tape; I said, “Can I just ask you if you’re doing something? Because it seems like you’re doing this, and I just want to see if it’s true. Are you avoiding the word ‘they’?” And she said, “I absolutely am.” She said that when words are taken out of context, it creates a destructive way of casting the whole situation.
So here you have this 19-year-old kid who is so deliberately trying to prevent the story from being framed in an us-versus-them, religious cultural way, that she’s trained herself out of using the word “they,” which I just thought was remarkable.
I think that it’s a testament to reasonable minds on both sides, that there haven’t been more ugly clashes, honestly. There’s a real distinct urge to shove anti-Semitism off the table, I think, because people feel like it obscures the actual issue. There’s a very keen sense that religion and culture obscures the actual stakes of the political fight.
When reporting the story, were you worried about accusations of anti-Semitism?
Oh, my gosh, yeah. That shared border between politics and religion and culture in the situation is so perilous. It’s part of the reason that the reporting took so long. The reporting is always complicated, especially with a fight that has so many fronts. But certainly the considerations of the delicacies of the situation were part of what made the reporting take so long.
Can you take me through what the reporting process was like?
I heard about the story from a friend in Chicago who went to school in the district. He just sent me an AP story about what was happening. I started going to board meetings last August. In the following period of time between then and the airing of the story, I dipped in and out of reporting in the district, going up there for meetings, interviewing people in the region. I would say, collectively, I probably put four or five months over the last year into reporting and writing the piece.
Do you feel like you got enough of the Hasidic viewpoint in the story?
I felt like I got enough to be fair. I would have liked for there to be more. But a lot of my attempts were met with refusal. I reached out to former members of the board, current members of the board. On the most recent election day, I planted myself outside a polling place and tried to talk to lay members of the community for an entire afternoon, and only one person would talk to me.
A story about East Ramapo that appeared on Tablet last week took a very different angle, saying that the East Ramapo budget cuts weren’t really different from any other school districts and that the state of New York had put a cap on raising property taxes. What’s your response to that?
Well, [the reporter] focused her analysis on the years after 2011, when the state imposed a property tax cap, and she sort of makes the observation that the district is behaving in the same way as other districts. The bulk of the cuts took place before then. Before 2011, the board had the freedom to do what it wanted with property tax caps or with property tax levies. If you look at what the levies are in the five years preceding 2011, you can see how the East Ramapo budget becomes an utter outlier.
So basing her analysis on the fact that after a property tax cap, all of the districts are following the law, is obtuse to the point of, I think, betraying real bias. That was sort of my take on the Tablet article, that it was kind of blatant activism.
What do you see is the future of the East Ramapo school district or school board?
I don’t know. It’s a really interesting question in terms of governance. According to the charter of our local democracies, this is exactly how things are supposed to work, but I don’t think that the people who chartered the secular institutions of our government or the social contracts that underpin it imagined this situation.