Special Satmar School District Gets a Windfall

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published November 03, 2010, issue of November 12, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

What is a school district of 123 students going to do with $1.6 million in federal grants earmarked for education reform?

That’s the happy quandary facing the Kiryas Joel Village Union Free School District, a public school district for special education students in upstate New York, in the Satmar Hasidic town of Kiryas Joel. The district is slated to receive more of the $697 million pot awarded to the New York State Education Department in the federal Race to the Top competition than all but seven other school districts, five of which serve the largest cities in the state.

Some basic math shows that the public school district for Kiryas Joel — a town founded in 1977 by the late grand rebbe of the Satmar Hasidic sect, Joel Teitelbaum, as a rural refuge for his followers — will receive more in RTTT funds per public school student than any other district in the state. What remains unclear is whether the district can also use those funds to benefit its private school students, an outcome that would be welcome news to the religious schools that serve almost all the non-special education students in the politically influential town

“It was all formula driven,” NYSED spokesman Jonathan Burman said of the process by which the amount of RTTT funding available to Kiryas Joel was determined.

Besides Kiryas Joel, the Rockland County Central school district of East Ramapo is slated to receive $2.6 million in RTTT grants, more than all but five New York public school districts. Two-thirds of the children living in the East Ramapo district attend private Orthodox religious schools, and the majority of members of the school board are Orthodox Jews.

Kiryas Joel’s public school district has long been a subject of controversy. First created in 1990 by an act of the New York State Legislature to serve special education students in the almost entirely Hasidic Orange County town, the specifically carved-out district weathered a series of constitutional challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that the district violated the Constitution’s requirement of separation between religion and state. But allies of the influential Satmar sect in the state government rewrote the law allowing for creation of the district, finally finding statutory language able to overcome the constitutional barriers.

According to NYSED documents, the district served 123 students in the 2008–2009 school year and 217 students the previous year, all of them under special education.

Unlike some New York villages and neighborhoods with majority Orthodox populations, Kiryas Joel is almost exclusively populated by members of the Satmar Hasidic sect. The village ranks among the poorest in the United States, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The 2006–2008 American Community Survey pegged the percentage of village residents living in poverty at 68%, the highest poverty rate calculated in that survey by 17 points.

That figure helps explain Kiryas Joel’s RTTT windfall. Federal guidelines base the amount available to each school district participating in the state’s RTTT program on the share of statewide federal funding the school received the previous year under Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary School Education Act. That funding is meant to serve students from low-income families and is determined by the number of students living in poverty, regardless of where they attend school.

In 2008, Kiryas Joel received $5.3 million in Title I grants. These funds are available to both public and private school students in the district. A 1997 Supreme Court case found that Title I funding can be used in private religious schools for services not related directly to religious instruction.

But while a school’s RTTT funding is based on its share of Title I funds, the school’s use of RTTT funds is more restricted than with Title I funds. In New York State, school districts and charter schools can choose from a list of allowed projects after funding two mandatory programs. Allowed projects include professional development for teachers, teacher evaluation and building data systems.

In contrast, “Title I monies can be used for pretty much anything related to serving low-income students,” said Jennifer Cohen, a policy analyst at the Education Policy Program of the New America Foundation. “They can be used for teacher salaries; they can be used for professional development; they can be used for purchasing new curricula and online tools.”

The rules regarding RTTT grants and private school students are still somewhat unclear. An expert at the federal Department of Education said that RTTT funds cannot be granted directly to private schools by the public school districts. But the expert, who would not speak on the record due to education department policy, said a district-wide program run by a public school district with RTTT funds that also benefitted private school students or teachers could potentially be allowable. The expert said that the state and federal departments would examine districts’ plans, which have not yet been submitted, to ensure that proposed programs are permissible.

Cohen said that low-income special education students like those served by the Kiryas Joel public school district could benefit from the RTTT program. “One of the big things in Race to the Top is focusing on the distribution of effective teachers,” she said. “And there’s a real shortage of teachers that specialize in special education, particularly really effective high-quality teachers. You get a lot of teachers in special education who are very young, particularly in school districts that are very high poverty. A big part of Race to the Top is rethinking how we attract teachers” to those sorts of placements.

School districts are not required to submit plans for how they will use their RTTT funds to the NYSED until November 8. Joel Petlin, the Kiryas Joel district’s superintendent, couldn’t be reached for comment by press time. But Petlin told the Times Herald-Record, an upstate New York newspaper that was the first to note the size of the RTTT grant to Kiryas Joel, “So long as we provide the service that we’re supposed to provide under the grant, stop the bias and move on.”

A state audit of Kiryas Joel’s school district, published in 2009, faulted the district’s leadership for failing to regulate financial conflicts of interest of school board members, citing an instance in 2008 where the district leased a building from a not-for-profit organization that shared board members with the school district.

School districts should begin to receive RTTT funds early next year.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.