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Opinion: Is Lakewood NJ Pushing the Boundaries Separating Church and State?

A recently approved bill commits nearly $17 million in state money to busing the town’s Orthodox Jewish students who attend yeshivas or private day schools

laura waters
Laura Waters

The New Jersey Senate and Assembly recently approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean, Monmouth) that commits the state to handing over $16.7 million per year to a private consortium to cover the costs of mandated and “courtesy” busing for Lakewood’s 18,930 Orthodox schoolchildren who attend yeshivas, or private Jewish day schools.

The Senate approved S-2049 by a margin of 22-8 and the Assembly by a margin of 41-27. This legislation perpetuates Lakewood’s unethical and unconstitutional culture of privileging private-school students over public students and also raises a number of troubling legal and governance issues.

Gov. Chris Christie should veto the bill.

Typically, transportation costs consume 5 percent to 6 percent of annual school budgets. Districts, according to state statute, must provide transportation for K-8 students who live more than 2 miles from school and for high schoolers who live more than 2½ miles from school. But in the 5,226-student district of Lakewood, 15 percent of the $120,830,423 annual operating budget is spent on transportation, mostly to yeshivas. The result of this disproportionate allocation (as well as out-of-district special education costs for Jewish children, a topic for another day) is that Lakewood has a $12 million budget deficit.

Hence, Singer has proposed his remedy, which requires the district to act as a middleman, receiving state checks derived from public tax dollars and handing them over to private hands. To soothe ruffled feathers of non-Jewish residents, the Town Council, according to the Asbury Park Press, has promised to provide courtesy busing for public school students, although Singer’s bill is silent on this matter. The district itself, then, will be responsible only for busing 3,000 public school students.

Lakewood’s demographics are unique to New Jersey, although New York’s East Ramapo has a similar profile. A rapidly increasing majority of residents are strict Orthodox Jews, or “Haredim,” a Hebrew term for “those who tremble in the fear of God.” Traditionally, Haredi parents send their children to yeshivas; in Lakewood there are currently 137, with more popping up all the time. Lakewood Haredim constitute a powerful voting bloc — during elections — and thus control the school board and the municipality.

The consensus among non-Haredi residents in Lakewood — represented by UNITE Lakewood (the African-American community), Voz Latina (the Hispanic community), and SAG (Lakewood’s senior citizens) — is that the school board inequitably privileges non-public students over public students.

The students who attend Lakewood Public Schools are poor (86 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch) and minority (74 percent Latino and 20 percent African-American). In fact, the district is poorer than many Abbotts but gets by with far less money per pupil, about $12,348 per year. According to the New Jersey Department of Education’s database, last year 23 percent of Lakewood High School students met proficiency levels for language arts and only 5 percent met proficiency levels for math. Less than six percent of students scored 1550 or above on their SAT’s, a measure of college and career-readiness.

Lakewood Public Schools, in fact, are marked by various forms of educational, administrative, fiscal, and legal dysfunction. The district has been under investigation by the FBI, American Civil Liberties Union, Education Law Center, U.S. Department of Education, and the New Jersey Department of Education. Two years ago the state sent Fiscal Monitor Michael Azzara there, and he regularly overrules the school board on budgetary matters.

But one problem at a time, right? First, the immediate dilemma of how to come up with enough money to get kids to school and bail Lakewood out of its $12 million hole. In rides Senator Singer on his white horse to save the day with S- 2049.

Or maybe he had a little help. According to the Lakewood Scoop, the local Haredi paper, “several local askanim [community leaders] devised a plan to save Lakewood from this coming [fiscal] crisis… Senator Bob Singer and Assemblymen Kean and Rible were approached with the idea and they immediately jumped into action writing legislation and introducing it in the senate and assembly.”

Let’s get this straight. Under instructions from a religious sect, the state is going to send $16.7 million per year to one district (the bill language precludes all others) which then will give the check to a private “consortium,” solely for the purpose of transporting children in gender-specific buses to yeshivas. Public school kids’ courtesy busing will be left to the goodwill of the Haredi-controlled municipal government. What is the legal status of this consortium? Is it a nonprofit 501(c) (3), an IRS-approved charitable organization that files tax returns? Who handles the money? Will the consortium hire employees? How much will they get paid from public tax dollars? Will the consortium require facilities? Does the law violate the separation of church and state?

None of these issues are addressed in the one-page bill. NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer decried the Legislature’s decision to “openly adopt a specialized law that uses public funds to benefit private schools” and worried, logically, that the law “would further erode the services available to Lakewood’s public schools.”

Pastor Glen Wilson, founder of Lakewood UNITE, posited this question to WNYC: “Those kids that need courtesy busing — how are they going to get to school? Mainly in the black and Latino community where parents don’t drive? In the Latino community we have a very large undocumented community that do not drive. So for that mother and father that have to go to work at six in the morning, how is that child going to be left at home, to get to school?” Sen. Singer’s pander to the Orthodox community in Lakewood undermines New Jersey’s urgent quest to provide equitable educational opportunities to underprivileged children. Gov. Christie, get out that veto pen.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Spotlight and other publications. She also blogs at NJ Left Behind and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 10 years.

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