If You Don’t Like It, Get Out: Hasidim and Schooling in Rockland County

“The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

That was the line of William Jennings Bryan in the 1920s.  As I describe in my 1920s book, the conservative Presbyterian leader hoped to purge American public schools of theologically suspect notions, especially evolution and atheism.

Almost a century later, we can see a case in which religious conservatives have put this saying into action.

But William Jennings Bryan would have been surprised.  The conservatives in this case are not Protestants, but Hasidic Jews.

Journalist Benjamin Wallace-Wells offers a spellbinding account of the takeover of the public-school system in Rockland County, New York by Hasidic Jews.  Over the past several years, the ultra-orthodox Jewish sect has moved in large numbers into towns such as Ramapo.  Members of the community have used their demographic dominance to win control over the East Ramapo school board.  Since community members send their children to private schools, the school board has shifted funding from those public schools to private yeshivas, most commonly in the forms of special-education services.  Public-school funding has also been cut to the bone and beyond.

Public school students, Wallace-Wells describes, often have a hard time filling their schedules, since so many teachers have been laid off.  When non-Hasidic parents and activists complain, the president of the school board has a simple message: “You don’t like it?  Find another place to live.”

According to Wallace-Wells, the origins of the public-school takeover came from the unlikely field of special education.  Hasidic parents noticed that many of their children needed special-education services.  Yet they could not—for religious reasons—attend the pluralist public schools where such services were provided.  As a result, the Hasidic community won spots on the school board.  That school board then allowed students with special-education needs to receive needed services at private religious schools.

Many of the foes of conservative educational activism and policy worry about a “fundamentalist takeover” of public education.  What would it mean if conservatives won control of public schools?  In this fascinating essay we can see one example of conservative takeover in action.