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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

I'd vouch for religious school exemption

New York City rated less than 10 percent

New York City rated less than 10 percent of its teachers "highly effective" in the latest round of state-required job evaluations this year, compared with nearly 60 percent of teachers across the rest of New York, according to a report issued Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Want to clear a room of elected officials fast? It only takes two words: East Ramapo.

That's the Rockland County community at the center of the most contentious political debate in New York. If you think it only matters to people there, think again.

The issue -- for now -- is the East Ramapo Central School District. Its students are predominantly black and Hispanic; its elected school board members are mostly Orthodox Jews. Orthodox families in Ramapo pay heavy school taxes, but their children attend yeshiva. They have no choice but to send them: The Talmud forbids boys and girls in the same classroom.

It's no surprise, then, that the school board has made significant spending cuts in the district. Thousands of constituents are paying for public schools they don't use, as well as for yeshiva.

Public school parents rightly feel cheated. Popular school programs have been eliminated, and now there's a fight to limit the power of the elected board.

The result is a hot-potato debate in the State Legislature's closing days on whether to appoint a monitor to oversee the board's decisions. Proponents say it's necessary. Opponents say it's bad precedent for state interference in local affairs. It's a tough call for pols. As one assemblyman put it to Capital New York, ". . . If I vote yes, I may be called an anti-Semite. If I vote no, I'm racist."

The rub is that both sides are doing what's best and logical for their children.

It guarantees that the conflict won't end with East Ramapo. Overall birthrates in NYC are plummeting -- the city's at its lowest rate since 1936 -- but births in Orthodox communities are booming. Those demographic trends are on a collision course in a growing number of school districts.

It's been a while since education vouchers were seriously discussed in New York, but they could be the answer here. The state should consider a religious exemption voucher for students who can't attend public schools as a genuine matter of conscience. School funding could follow those students, and not be counted against the district in which they live.

I know, New York's funding formulas are complex. But what's painfully simple to foresee is the coming clash if we do nothing.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant.


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