Josh Nathan-Kazis reports: 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.
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