I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, March 8, 2021

Lakewood, NJ: Where Public Schools Are Left To Wither, Part I

If you follow K12 policy, you've probably noticed that the school privatization crowd has recently become reenergized. The folks from right-wing think tanks and the professional school "choice" promoters have been pushing the idea of school vouchers hard, certain that the pandemic has created widespread dissatisfaction with our current system of public school districts.

Many times I've seen these people make the argument that private schools are fully open, and the only reason public schools are not is the intransigence of teachers unions and fecklessness of school boards. Of course, it's hardly that simple: consider that many "no excuses" charter schools -- free of both unions and BOEs -- remain closed. We also really don't know how many private schools are open, or to what extent, or with what consequences.

Nonetheless, the privatizers see an opening. And considering the number of wingnuts out there who think COVID isn't a serious threat that requires extraordinary actions to secure schools, they may be right. School privatization was, to my mind, always a secondary part of the overall conservative agenda, but that may have changed, if only in the short term.

Given the renewed focus on vouchers, I think we're justified in taking some time to really think about what it would look like if we embraced the idea of privatized schools in a "choice" system. What would it look like? If they still existed, what would the public schools do? Which students would go where? How would it affect the community? How would it affect the taxpayers? 

In the upcoming series of posts, I'm going to argue that we don't need to speculate; we already have at least one example, right here in New Jersey, of what will happen if a community largely abandons its public schools. 

Welcome to Lakewood*:

An administrative law judge has determined the public school district cannot fulfill its constitutional mandate to provide students a "thorough and efficient education," but stopped short of determining that the state funding formula is unconstitutional. 

In a non-binding decision Judge Susan Scarola recommended that the New Jersey Commissioner of Education conduct a needs assessment of the school district's ability to meet its obligations and make "appropriate recommendations to the district."

The decision scarcely binds the Acting Education Commissioner Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan to do anything; the recommendation may be adopted, modified or rejected by Allen-McMillan. But the harsh assessment — that the school district cannot meet its constitutional mandate — puts fresh focus on the troubled school district and pressure on the state's top education official to intervene.

The 6,000-student district faces chronic budget gaps, owing in part to a state school-funding formula that fails to account for the fact the district must also pay transportation costs for 37,000 Lakewood students attending private schools.

Yes, that's right: only a small fraction of Lakewood's students attend the public schools. And, yes, that is very unusual -- especially for a state like New Jersey.

Private school data in the United States is at the mercy of survey methodology; in other words, it's very easy to make an incomplete count of private schools students in a community, because it's hard to get to every school, especially the small ones. The Private School Survey from the National Center for Education Statistics is, however, the best data source we have on private schools. When combined with state data, it shows a remarkable story about private schooling in Lakewood. Across the state, a little under 10 percent of students attend private schools. But four in five Lakewood students are in a private school, way more than the state and way, way more than any other town in Ocean County.

A few years ago, the Star-Ledger did an extensive series of reports on Lakewood, dubbing it "N.J.'s most controversial town." The first report gives some background:

Lakewood is booming. Thanks to an influx of Orthodox Jews, it has been New Jersey's fastest-growing town over the last 20 years. It has one of the highest birth rates in the world. Housing is going up at an unprecedented pace.

Why are there so many Orthodox Jews in Lakewood?

Lakewood had long been a popular resort for Jewish vacationers when a refugee rabbi fleeing Nazis in Lithuania arrived in the 1940s to start Beth Medrash Govoha, a higher education institution where men could study the Talmud, one of the religion's sacred text.

The yeshiva, known as BMG, grew over the years into one of the largest schools of its kind in the nation, with more than 6,500 students. A thriving Orthodox Jewish community grew around the yeshiva, which included many Jews from Brooklyn's Orthodox community looking for less costly housing and a more suburban setting to raise their families.

Who else lives in Lakewood?

The population exploded from 45,000 in 1990 to more than 100,000 now, making it New Jersey's fifth-largest city.

The town is 84 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic and 4 percent black, according to the U.S. Census. There is a growing Mexican immigrant community and a large community of seniors in sprawling retirement communities, including Leisure Village. The African-American community has been shrinking in recent years.

This last paragraph is perhaps the key to understanding Lakewood's schools: while there is a large and growing Orthodox Jewish community in Lakewood, it is not the entirety of the town's population. The Hispanic and Black students in Lakewood are not being served by the town's large network of yeshivas; instead, they are enrolled in the public school district.

Now, it's clear that very few communities in the United States are exactly like Lakewood. But that doesn't mean there aren't lessons about school privatization to be learned. I have three:

  1. When a large part of a community abandons its public schools, chaos ensues and accountability dissolves.
  2. Segregation is the inevitable consequence of school privatization.
  3. Educators will be disrespected in a community that does not support its public schools. 
It's going to take several posts to tell this story, because it's big and complex. Fortunately, there has been some excellent reporting on Lakewood's schools, particularly from the Asbury Park Press; I'm going to lean heavily on them as I work through this series.

But in spite of the story's many twists and turns, I think it's an important one to tell it. Lakewood is a cautionary tale, and the ethnicity of the characters in it really doesn't matter much. What's important is that we understand what happens when public schools are left to whither in a community that has largely abandoned them.

I'll dig into the data next.

* All emphases in this post are mine. 


Benjamin Lewis said...

The profile of this school district seems somewhat similar to the East Ramapo Central schools in NY where my wife teaches. There's a large Hasidic community, so the notable majority of resident students attend private yeshivot. There are 15 public school sites, but when the private schools are accounted the district provides daily transportation to about 100 total sites.

About 15 years ago, state regulations/enforcement narrowed the district's authority to pass special ed placements & funding through to students attending yeshivot. The private school families starting voting down school district budgets and elected private school extremists to run the school board. Within a couple years, public high school students couldn't graduate on time because there weren't enough teachers to run the needed classes. District is/was (?) under direct state oversight for some time because of the various budget schenanigans.

Giuseppe said...

I don’t get it, I always assumed that private/religious schools had to supply their own transportation. Do the Catholic schools or any other religious schools aside from the ultra-orthodox also get tax payer funded bussing? That’s some weird state school-funding formula.

Duke said...

The parallels to East Ramapo (and Brooklyn to a degree) are obvious. But I am making a case here that the religious denomination of the citizens is beside the point. This is a group of families that have opted out of the public school system so large that they are electing leaders to make decisions that are not in the best interests of the students attending those schools. It's easy, to my mind, to think of this happening in any number of other scenarios.

Duke said...

Giuseppe, New Jersey was actually the first state to establish taxpayer support for private schools. The statute went before the SCOTUS, where it was upheld 5-4. See:


It's ironic that NJ, consistently one of the highest ranked public school systems in the nation, was where the practice of supporting private schools was established as constitutional. Of course, I think the court got it totally wrong: this is obviously state support for religious indoctrination.

ANY NJ student in a district's boundaries is entitled to transportation to a private school, so long as it is within a certain limit.