Tuesday, August 4, 2020
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Possible tyranny of the majority in East Ramapo

Most of the voters who live within the boundaries for the East Ramapo school district in New York, about 30 miles north of Manhattan, are Hasidic Jews. Many of them send their kids to private schools affiliated with their religious sect, known as yeshivas. In fact, about 24,000 kids in the district attend private schools, while about 9,000 students, most of them black or Latino, attend the public schools. Hasidic Jews also make up a majority of the school board, which is elected by the people.

Over the past few years, during what has been a definite budget crisis for New York’s public schools, the board has taken action that some advocates for kids think reduces the quality of the education received by the majority of students who attend the public schools. The board has, at the same time, maintained funding, some of which is federally mandated, for programs in many of the private religious schools about three-fourths of the district’s residents attend.

The plot thickened last week when a bill, passed by New York’s House and loaded with support from the governor, educators, child advocates, and others, died a long, slow death in the state Senate. The bill would have appointed a monitor to oversee and potentially overrule the school board in certain matters.

The legislation doesn’t appear to have a successful future in the upper chamber, though, seeing as how at least one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Assemblyman Walter Mosley, Democrat of Fort Greene, pulled his support. The website Kings County Politics said he withdrew his support because he didn’t like the bill’s “anti-Semitic overtones.”

“I could not in good faith move forward with my name affiliated with this piece of legislation,” he was quoted as saying. “Not to say that the legislation might not still have merit, but I can’t be a part of anything that espouses hatred of one particular group.”

Even one board member characterized the criticism of the board’s decisions as anti-Semitic. Media outlets (“This American Life,” The Jewish Week, New York Times) have further escalated the claims of anti-Semitism to a feverish pitch.

But one of the bill’s lead sponsors, Ellen Jaffee, a Democratic Assembly member from Rockland County, said installing a monitor to oversee the school board “has nothing to do with who they are in terms of their culture or religious background.” The bill was “clearly supported by a large sector of the Jewish community,” she said. Indeed, the American Jewish Committee, the NAACP, and the New York City Bar Association have all endorsed the bill.

Given the certain defeat of the original monitor bill in the Senate, however, new legislation has been introduced in hopes of getting something passed by the time New York’s General Assembly adjourns in the next few days, the Journal News reported earlier today. The new bill, which has no certain future either, severely limits the types of decisions enacted by the board any state-appointed monitor could undo. Only those decisions that violate federal or state law could be reversed under the new legislation.

Historical examples of tyranny of the majority

Whether this bill passes or not, the situation in East Ramapo yields an interesting question for those of us who don’t live in New York. School boards, elected by the majority of voters in a district, make decisions that affect the public schools, which are financially broke everywhere across the country. What do you do when a public school board puts the interests of the majority of voters above those of the majority of students who attend the public schools?

The sociological—and political—principle of a “tyranny of the majority” occurs when the rights of minorities are short-circuited in order to improve conditions for the majority responsible for electing those in charge.

In ancient Rome, the majority often governed in ways that ended up punishing minorities. Romans used newly conquered peoples as gladiators, for example, while members of minority religious sects may have been fed to the lions in order to amuse people. These practices reinforced the notion that Romans were the only civilized people, they were in the majority, and they didn’t have to trouble themselves with the needs of the people they had defeated.

Our own country’s founders took steps to ensure there would be no tyranny of the majority. One huge benefit of the system of checks and balances, instituted in the Constitution, is to prevent any one branch of government from acquiring too much power too quickly.

The founders also made it so a supermajority would be required, say, to keep the voice of the minority quiet in the Senate. In addition, the fear of a tyranny of the majority resulted in the creation of the Bill of Rights, which protected the rights of individuals and minorities against the majority rule in the government. Many other amendments and laws stem from the rights of minorities and individuals safeguarded in the first 10 amendments.

Are the charter school movement & school choice examples from today?

For me, speaking strictly as an educator, I see the problem in East Ramapo as being a canary in the mine of the whole charter school movement. I am not opposed to charter schools that serve the needs of a small population of students whose needs can’t be met fully by public schools that have to educate everybody under the sun. In East Ramapo, it seems the board has used its majority, however, to support schools that cater to their religious agenda, not the public schools they were elected to serve.

By draining resources from the public schools, here the funds used for busing and special education, the board is making it more and more difficult for public schools in East Ramapo to provide an adequate and free education for citizens. Charter schools—cash cows for their owners—do exactly the same thing everywhere in America. Public schools choke, and then, when charters show that public schools are failing, more kids leave those public schools and attend the charter schools, which then get more money.

Repeat the above, over and over, and sooner or later, the public schools in East Ramapo won’t have anyone left, and whether it’s the chicken or the egg, they’ll have no money either. All the families in East Ramapo, through their taxes, get to support the yeshivas, which deserve support but not at the expense of a quality public education. The schools will be seen as saviors, and even Latino and black students will be in attendance.

In this way, the war on public education, also known as “school choice,” continues without any checks or balances and with horrid consequences. Public schools in the US have been closed and, where they remain open, reduced to rubble. The forces of greed and religion—maybe two sides of the same coin—could very soon turn that rubble to nothing but dust.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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