Inequity in Lakewood: Spotlight on Special Education for Jewish Students

New York has East Ramapo and New Jersey has Lakewood: school districts with huge numbers of Orthodox Jewish families who send their children to private yeshivas yet control school boards and school budgets.  The result is that thousands of poor black and Hispanic students get bubkes.

Lakewood is once again in the news because, as the Asbury Park Press reports, “a  proposed budget for the 2016-17 school year eliminates courtesy busing, slashes 68 teaching positions and cancels all middle school sports and clubs, among other draconian measures aimed at closing a projected $12 million deficit.” That budget gap stems from extraordinary costs for two items: transportation  and special education. The district spends about $20 million bussing yeshiva kids to Orthodox Jewish private schools and even more on tuition costs for private special education schools. These two items consume more than a third of Lakewood’s total operating budget of $120,830,423.

Lakewood is badly under-aided by the state, well below adequacy at $12,348 per student per year. (For more on N.J.’s inequitable funding formula, see my new NJ Spotlight column.) The school board has vowed to vote down the proposed budget, crafted by the state-appointed fiscal monitor who was brought on after a series of events that highlighted the district’s dysfunction. (The state monitor can overrule the Board’s vote.) Certainly, the district needs more money. But it also needs to address its special education out-of-district costs.

At last June’s school board meeting (see the minutes here, pages 35-40), the school board approved the placement of 195 students at a private special education school called The School For Children with Hidden Intelligence (SCHI). Approved annual tuition amounts range from $97,120 to $125,120 per child. SCHI insists that it welcomes non-Jewish children, but facts suggest otherwise.

Pictures from a  recent fundraiser touted by the local Jewish newspaper display an abundance of black hats. In 2013 another media outlet reported that the district spend “$17,500,000 out of $19,053,992 budgeted in tuition costs paid for special needs students to be placed out-of-district in the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence (SCHI).”  An editorial in NJ Spotlight reported that “only 25 percent to 30 percent of the public funds spent on education in Lakewood in 2011-2012 was actually spent on educating children in the seven public schools.” In 2013 the FBI subpoenaed Board of Ed documents. In 2006, the ACLU filed suit against the Lakewood School Board for racial discrimination, a finding confirmed by the state D.O.E.”

The ACLU-NJ uncovered disparities in Lakewood’s special education program after reviewing enrollment statistics for the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 school years. For example, even though white students made up only 55 percent of the overall preschool special education population in Lakewood, they received 98 percent of the more expensive, out-of-district placements, according to enrollment statistics obtained by the ACLU-NJ. 

“The numbers showed a clear pattern of discrimination on the basis of race,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. During at least two consecutive school years, only one of 94 nonwhite preschool special education students was sent to an out-of-district placement while more than half of the 123 white preschool special education students were sent to the more expensive out-of-district placements. “It was as if they were being treated as two different classes of students,” Barocas said. 

Further, the evidence showed that most of the white students were sent to one particular school — the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence — that appeared to have enrolled only white students.

Ten years after the ACLU suit, the district budget is under water and white Jewish students are placed in a thinly-veiled special education yeshiva. SCHI has a short day — 5 and a half hours — so that time can be allotted for “afterschool” Hebrew prayers. The district also regularly pays for students there to attend Jewish summer camps like the Hebrew Academy for Special Children ($10,172 per summer), documented in those same school board minutes.

Meanwhile back in-district, the spokesman for the LakewoodUNITE, which represents shortchanged Latino families, begs for a state takeover. District superintendent Laura Winters had this to say about the proposed budget that preserves exclusivity for Jewish families and cheats Hispanic children:

“It is my professional opinion that this budget offers an inferior education compared to the education offered to those students in wealthier towns in Ocean County and across the state,” Winters said, reading from a prepared statement. “I cannot certify a budget that does not offer the students of the Lakewood School District a thorough and efficient education, nor does it meet minimum adequacy standards that allow our students to compete in the labor market with students who have had educational opportunities that have prepared them to enter the global workplace.”

I don’t know what the answer is. Press coverage (the Asbury Park Press  has been on this story for years) and legal actions appear to have no impact. Perhaps a state takeover is the only answer to disenfranchisement of in-district students, both general and special education.

What do you think?

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