Someone Else’s Raw Deal

East Ramapo, New York is a town with an education battle and a story that seems more fit for cable television than for teachers and classrooms.

Located an hour north of New York City, East Ramapo is home to a large Hasidic community--ultra-Orthodox Jewish Americans who send their children to private religious schools but support public schools with property taxes.

In the late nineties, nearly two-thirds of students in this school district attended private yeshivas, Orthodox religious schools, but these schools couldn’t receive government funds, even for things like special education. The Hasidic community reacted. In 2005, they gained a majority on the school board and began making drastic cuts to property taxes and the government-run (public) school budget. This pattern has continued for a decade, despite vocal opposition from public school advocates, and it has created deep rifts in the East Ramapo community.

We were transfixed as we listened to the drama unfold on a This American Life podcast. It was the second Saturday morning of the Community Institute for Educations, equipping session and our facilitator introduced the clip as a case study in reductionism. Reductionism, from what I gathered, is misunderstanding a complex situation by reducing it to a small piece, typically the piece that affects you the most. When combined with power (like majority control of the school board), reductionism can lead to injustice.

It was easy to identify reductionism in the East Ramapo story. Members of the Hasidic community had been reduced to taxpayers, and eventually the entire public school system was reduced to a financial liability. Perhaps most significantly, the children of the district were reduced to “our children” and “their children.” Parents with children at government-run (public) schools fought for restoration of funding and programs for their schools; Orthodox leaders fought for the interests of their own community. Everyone wanted their piece of the pie, and injustice prospered.

“What would justice have looked like in this situation?” our facilitator asked, and for a moment everyone was stumped. “Think about this,” she tried again, “if justice is giving things their due, then how could all the pieces been given their due?”

We began tentatively, then picked up steam. What if religious commitment had been given its due? What if the school board had figured out a way to honor the the Hasidic desire to meet the needs of their students in particular ways? What if programs in the government-run schools had been given their due? Could the Hasidic community have shared power with the parents with children at the government-run (public) schools, advocating for a “fair share” that didn’t come completely at the expense of the government-run schools?

“Justice is never about one thing,” someone said, “It’s about drilling down into an issue, and acknowledging every piece.” “Yes,” someone else added, “and it’s also coming to care about a raw deal that isn’t your raw deal.” Another participant nodded, “The question is: Are the people in power going to pursue justice when they don’t have to?”

And with this question ringing in our heads, together we thought about how we might avoid reductionism and pursue justice in the education issues we care about most.

Digging Deeper:

  • Choose an educational issue that you care about. Write it in the middle of a piece of paper, and then surround it with every ‘part’ or ‘piece’ that you can brainstorm. Consider all the people, places, institutions, and systems that impact and are affected by ‘your’ issue.
  • (For example, you could pick “Kindergarten class size,” and surround it with phrases like: individual attention for kids, teacher burnout, union contracts, classroom culture, ability of teachers to connect with parents, state laws about teacher-student ratios, district funding, allocation of funds, number of physical classrooms in the building, etc.)
  • Are there any aspects of this issue that you’ve never considered before? What would it look like to give every piece its due?


About the Institute's Resident Writer

The Institute is excited to be able to share these stories with you, courtesy of one of our participants, Jennifer Pelling. Jennifer is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She and her husband have two daughters--one in second grade at an independent Christian school, and one in first grade at a local government-run school. This arrangement has given her a greater appreciation--and endless questions--about the benefits and drawbacks of diverse types of schooling.

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