Tag Archives: New York

An Immoral Use of Jewish Power in Upstate New York

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New York State’s legislative session is in full swing, and thousands of Jews from across denominational lines are expressing their support for two bills that, on the face of it, don’t seem to have anything to do with typical Jewish issues like Israel or liberal social causes.

But these bills — A.5355 and S.3821, as they’re known in Albany — are the test case for the moral future of Jewish life in New York, perhaps even the whole country.

For the past several years, a local, then statewide, and now national drama has been playing out in a school district of Rockland County, located just northwest of New York City. At one level, the issue at hand is about school control. The East Ramapo school system is governed by a supermajority of ultra-Orthodox Jews who live in the district but did not attend public schools and send their children to private yeshivas. While this fact alone might raise some eyebrows, what they’ve done with this control has raised alarm.

The board has drastically increased the funding going to yeshivas, but it has cut public school classes and extracurricular activities, attempting to sell public school assets at below market prices to private yeshivas, and more. These ethically and at times legally dubious actions have been documented by everyone from newspapers like this one to the New York City Bar Association to the New York State Supreme Court.

Frustrated by the school board’s intransigence, local students, parents, teachers, religious leaders and activists appealed to the state for help. Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed an independent fiscal monitor, Hank Greenberg, last year to investigate the district. From a removed, balanced perspective, Greenberg confirmed what thousands of public school students and parents had known for years: The board is responsible for “recklessly depleting the district’s reserves” and favoring “the private school community over the East Ramapo public schools.”

Greenberg’s report called for several fixes to be made, the most significant one being long-term oversight of the board. Oversight and the transparency it brings are a key component to fixing the broken school district, and they are central to the new bills. Secrecy and obfuscation have been tools of the board, using procedural tricks like keeping school board meetings in executive session until past midnight, away from parents and children who wish to participate; not releasing financial statements, and more. The monitor would put a stop to that. Further, an independent monitor not beholden to any community but with the best interests of all the parties involved would start building the trust, which is needed for this district to move forward. Ultimately, the monitor is the best path forward for everyone, including the ultra-Orthodox community.

As Orthodox Jews grow in number, the question of how to flex our political muscle becomes more critical. The Jewish community has needs as well. We live in a golden era where we have can express those needs through the democratic process with pride. The question is not whether to use political power, but how.

One way is to use our power to get what our community needs, even if it means skirting the rules and steamrolling over the needs of other communities. That’s been the case in the East Ramapo School District. Those who support the actions of the school board say that this is democracy, this is the American way.

They are wrong. America is not an absolute, direct democracy where the will of the numerical majority is the law of the land. We live in a republic, a republic that seeks to protect the interests and welfare of all its citizens, including the minority, the disenfranchised and the vulnerable.

As an Orthodox Jew, when I first learned about what was happening in East Ramapo and about the attitudes of the board, I was shocked and disgusted. The Talmud teaches, “The world endures only for the sake of the breath of school children.” The public actions of this school board over the years have been in flagrant violation of that and so many other Jewish values and teachings. The Torah we share demands over and over again we never trample the stranger, the immigrant and the poor — apt descriptions of many in the public school district. They have also caused a massive Chillul Hashem — desecration of God’s name. The leadership of the school board to date has grossly violated both American and Jewish values. This is not the way to use Jewish power in America.

Instead, we need to find a way to both advance our interests and needs while taking the needs of our fellow citizens into account; rather than just grabbing more and more slices of the pie and leaving those around us hungry, we work together to grow the pie so there is enough for all. This would be a moral use of Jewish power, using it to call out those who are acting unjustly, even when they are from our own community. That is why thousands and thousands of Jewish New Yorkers are lobbying their legislators to pass these bills, which will provide needed oversight. Ultimately, this is about those school children in East Ramapo, and it’s about the very legacy that Jewish New Yorkers will leave on this great state.

Ari Hart is a founder of Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice and a founding member of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice.

Read more: http://forward.com/opinion/national/309145/in-east-ramapo-an-immoral-use-of-jewish-power/#ixzz3cvitffiB

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How Due Process Protects Teachers and Students

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Teacher tenure rights, first established more than a century ago, are under unprecedented attack. Tenure—which was enacted to protect students’ education and those who provide it—is under assault from coast to coast, in state legislatures, in state courtrooms, and in the media.In June 2014, in the case of Vergara v. California, a state court judge struck down teacher tenure and seniority laws as a violation of the state’s constitution.* Former CNN and NBC journalist Campbell Brown has championed a copycat case,Wright v. New York, challenging the Empire State’s tenure law (which was consolidated with another New York case challenging tenure, Davids v. New York). Similar cases are reportedly in the works in several other states.1

Meanwhile, with incentives from the federal Race to the Top program, 18 states have recently weakened tenure laws, and Florida and North Carolina sought to eliminate tenure entirely.2 According to the Education Commission of the States, in order to give greater weight to so-called performance metrics, 10 states prohibited using tenure or seniority as a primary factor in layoff decisions in 2014, up from five in 2012.3

Leading media outlets have joined in the drumbeat against tenure. A 2010 Newsweek cover story suggested that “the key to saving American education” is: “We must fire bad teachers.”4 In 2014, the cover of Time magazine showed a judge’s mallet crushing an apple. The headline, referencing the Vergara case, read, “Rotten Apples: It’s Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher; Some Tech Millionaires May Have Found a Way to Change That.”5

Amidst this sea of negative publicity for educators, journalist Dana Goldstein wrote that “the ineffective tenured teacher has emerged as a feared character,” like “crack babies or welfare queens” from earlier eras.6 Labor attorney Thomas Geoghegan quipped that the “bad teacher” meme is so strong that one can imagine a young Marlon Brando, altering his famous line from On the Waterfront to say: “I … I could have been a contender—but I got that old Miss Grundy in the fourth grade!”7

Of course, conservatives have long attacked policies such as tenure that constrain the ability of managers to fire whomever they want, but the latest assaults on tenure have invoked liberal egalitarian ideals. In the Vergara case, Judge Rolf Treu, a Republican appointee, claimed that the case, funded by a Silicon Valley millionaire, was about championing the rights of poor and minority students. Treu made a big show of comparing his decision weakening teacher tenure rights to the landmark cases of Brown v. Board of Education (which promoted school desegregation) and Serrano v. Priest (which required equity in education spending).8 Treu used a serious and pressing problem—that low-income students often have the weakest and least experienced teachers—not as an argument for addressing segregation or inadequate financial resources but instead as the rationale for weakening tenure rights.

Curiously, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan endorsed the decision, as did leading liberal lawyers like Laurence Tribe and David Boies. Broad Foundation President Bruce Reed, a former staffer to Vice President Joe Biden, suggested that the ruling was “another big victory” for students of color, in the tradition of Brown.9 (Other liberals had a more sober response. Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law scholar and dean of the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, for example, has criticized Treu’s reasoning, arguing that attacking tenure will do little to improve school quality.10)

All the attention to tenure—especially from progressives—raises an important question: What is it exactly? The legal definition is simple: tenure provides those teachers who have demonstrated competence after a probationary period with due process rights before being fired. It is not, as critics contend, a guaranteed job for life. As I explain in this article, historically, tenure laws developed to protect teachers from favoritism and nepotism and to ensure that students received an education subject to neither political whims nor arbitrary administrative decisions. Tenure protections are still necessary today, especially given the current fixation on high-stakes testing and the linking of students’ test scores to teacher evaluations. I believe that rather than doing away with tenure, dismissal procedures could be mended to strike the right balance between providing fairness to good teachers and facilitating the removal of incompetent ones. I also believe there are innovative ways to connect low-income students with great teachers. Yet, it continues to amaze me that with all the problems in education, we are so fixated on the issue of teacher tenure. What is really going on?

– See more at: http://www.aft.org/ae/summer2015/kahlenberg#sthash.ovmn8vUc.dpuf

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