A federally backed program subsidizing Internet access for low-income students has committed more money to schools in the heavily Orthodox Jewish town of Lakewood, N.J. in recent years than to schools in any other municipality in the entire state.
Yet after several years of participating in the E-Rate subsidy program, Lakewood’s schools report having far fewer Internet-capable devices per student than any large New Jersey city, according to a Forward analysis.
Schools in Lakewood, a town of 92,000, have received more dollars per student than those in any other significant city in New Jersey. In 2011, schools in Lakewood received $282 in E-Rate commitments for every student served by the program. Schools in Newark, the largest city in New Jersey and one of the poorest, received just $82 per student that year.
Less than one-tenth of the E-Rate money has gone to Lakewood’s public school system, which has one of the worst high school graduation rates in New Jersey. The rest is granted to the town’s private schools, the vast majority of which serve the ultra-Orthodox community.
As well as Internet connectivity, E-Rate funds can also be used for things like telephone systems and voicemail for administrators, but schools in Lakewood report similar numbers of phones in their classrooms, compared to other schools.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders in Lakewood have railed against the dangers of the Internet, especially for young people, raising questions about why the town’s Orthodox schools have benefitted so heavily from E-Rate. One Lakewood Orthodox girls school, Bais Rivka Rochel, reported having five Internet-capable devices in a school of 1,025 students, despite receiving $700,000 in E-Rate subsidies.
“I think it’s unfair,” said J. Michael Rush, a former official with the New Jersey Department of Education and a former public school superintendent who lives in Lakewood, of the large amounts of E-Rate money going to Lakewood’s private schools. “It’s inequality, no matter how you look at it.”
The U.S. Congress created the E-Rate program in 1995 to help financially disadvantaged young people get access to the Web in schools and at libraries. Since 1998, E-Rate has distributed $2.25 billion each year, collected from telecommunications firms, to schools and libraries nationwide. The money is used to reimburse the institutions’ Internet and phone bills and their purchase of some phone- and Web-related hardware. Rates of reimbursement are pegged to poverty levels at individual schools. The program is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company, a semi-governmental body overseen by the Federal Communications Commission.