Once again the Lakewood Public Schools has been bailed out of their financial hole. This has become a rite of spring. The school-age population in Lakewood is around 35,000, of which only 6,000 children are public school students. Lakewood Schools have demographics like no other school district in New Jersey. The school district spends over 15 million dollars on courtesy busing for the 120 nonpublic ultra-Orthodox yeshivas in the Township. Additionally, special education costs for Orthodox children to attend one particular standalone special education school, the School for Hidden Intelligence, are 1.8 million dollars per month. Nonpublic schools also receive other forms of State and Federal aid for security, textbooks, nursing support, etc. They are also eligible for Chapter 192 and 193 for special education and basic skills programs. Where do all these funds really go?
Last summer legislation, sponsored by Senator Robert Singer, was enacted. The legislation created the Lakewood Student Transportation Authority (LSTA) that is responsible for managing the busing of nonpublic school students, a job that had previously been performed by the district. A consortium of local rabbis hired the staff and rented offices for the Authority. At the urging of a number of residents the legislation created an Oversight Committee to monitor the operations of the Authority. According to Senator Singer, his bill “only” awarded 2 million dollars to the Consortium for each year of the three-year pilot program.
But there are a number of questions that need to be asked of Senator Singer, the N.J. Department of Education, the Lakewood School Board and the Consortium itself. Why does the Busing Consortium not hold public meetings when their own Oversight Committee is required to do so? How did the Consortium leadership choose a marginally-qualified person to head the LSTA and pay him $150,000, 50% more than Lakewood Schools paid their own busing coordinator for the same position?. Did they calculate that over three-quarters of a million dollars will be spent on the LSTA employees during the course of the busing pilot?
As stated, Lakewood spends an inordinate amount of money on special education. The School for Hidden Intelligence (SCHI) charges $112,000 per student. A complaint filed in 2016 with the Federal Department of Justice cites that 199 of 200 students at the school are Orthodox children. This is in a public school district where approximately 5,800 of the total school enrollment of 6,000 are minority students. SCHI’s director was recently arraigned on fraud charges for the misappropriation of funds.
Again, questions abound. Why does the SCHI admit (with one exception) only Orthodox children? Why is their tuition 40% higher than the typical stand-alone special education school? Why are some children with minor disabilities educated at SCHI when their diagnoses (as well as federal and state law) does not require such a restrictive environment?
There are over 120 non-public schools in Lakewood. Many of the schools are housed in buildings that are converted homes with enrollment numbers between 20 and 60 students. Often these also serve as dormitories for middle and high school age male students. Girls are educated, and bussed separately to school buildings that are more typical in nature.
State officials have been asked to review the curricula of these schools but have failed to do so. It has been alleged that these schools are religious training institutions that do little to advance the secular education of their students. This issue has also been discussed in New York City because “graduates” lack the basic skills to obtain work.
It is obvious to many that a large number of non-public boys’ schools in Lakewood do not comply with the N.J.S.A. 18:38-25, the compulsory attendance statute that requires all non-public schools to “have a day school in which there is given instruction equivalent to that provided in the public schools for children of similar grades and attainments or to receive equivalent instruction elsewhere than at school.” A review of the curricula of private and parochial schools in Monmouth and Ocean County demonstrates their compliance with the statute. Yet, these Lakewood yeshivas receive tax-exempt status and several forms of State aid. In light of the statute, are they really schools? If they are not, then they do not qualify for any form of State aid. Can they demonstrate that they use Chapter 192 and 193 (basic skills, remediation, etc.) aid appropriately? Are they offering instruction as required by law? Will members of the non-public school group in Lakewood allow independent educational experts to examine their curricula and instruction in order to verify their compliance?
All children deserve an education that provides the foundation for life success. In Lakewood, although the money is allocated, the results do not follow. An Orthodox-controlled Board of Education that cares little about public schools and monies diverted from the public schools to fund non-schools and extravagant services contributes to a culture of entitlement and the slow death of public education for Lakewood minority students.
Alfred Longo is a full-time tenured professor at Ocean County College. He has worked in education for over 45 years, most of that time as a school administrator in the Holmdel Township Schools. He is on the Executive Board of SAG, Inc. and is one of its founding members, and is also a member of the Board of Directors of The Fairways Homeowners Association in Lakewood. He was appointed by the Governor and the NJDOE to the Oversight Committee for the Lakewood Township Student Transportation Authority.
SAG, Inc. is a senior action group that seeks to work for equality in all municipal services, including public education. In essence, we work for the welfare of our community. We have been advocates for the minority population in Lakewood with U.N.I.T.E., a coalition of minority residents and church leaders, and La Voz Latina, an advocacy group representing Lakewood’s sizable Hispanic population.