Dear Governor Cuomo:
As a Rockland County Legislator, I represent many families whose students are in the East Ramapo School District. I am barraged with questions from residents countywide who are concerned about the state of this once highly acclaimed district. As a proud graduate of Ramapo High School, I can attest to the excellent education the district has provided to thousands of students over the years, and I count myself among the concerned. It is especially heart-wrenching to represent people on both sides of the growing divide. My hope is for reconciliation among these good people who all want the same thing: the best quality of education for their children.
As you know, this district faces unique challenges; the number of students who attend private parochial schools is approximately double that of the public school student enrollment. The private school students are predominantly white; ninety percent of the public school population are children of color. The majority of the school board members are from the private, parochial school community. Tensions between the groups have flared as this financially strapped district has eliminated services to public school students that their families expect as part of a standard public education. The foundation aid formula for East Ramapo does not reflect the reality of the wealth in the district nor does it adequately account for the needs of the private school children. Cuts in services are troubling in any district. In East Ramapo, these cuts are all the more upsetting, especially when compared to the academic choices and enrichment programs available in surrounding districts. All students, whether attending public or private schools, deserve a high quality education.
In the United States, public education is a firmly established right. Generations of immigrants coming to our great nation viewed our free public school system as the first step on the way to achieving the American Dream. Access to an equal education has been codified in our civil rights laws. The East Ramapo families continue to hold education as the means to unlock their students’ potential, whether it’s training for a trade or preparing for an academic degree.
It’s unthinkable to block any child from the pathway to a dream. Our American way of life and capitalism itself rely on students with the skills to contribute to our workforce. In the March 2012 Harvard Business Review, Stacey Childress wrote: “McKinsey & Company has estimated that if the U.S. had closed the education achievement gap with better-performing nations, GDP in 2010 could have been 8% to 14%—$1.2 trillion to $2.1 trillion1—higher.” The report’s authors called this gap, “the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession.” Childress continues: “The implications could not be clearer: The United States must recognize that its long-term growth depends on dramatically increasing the quality of its K–12 public education system.”
Indeed, strength of our democracy rests on an educated public that can engage in civic discourse. To deprive one segment of our society of this right is unthinkable, but a growing number of students in East Ramapo are not receiving an equal education. Several years ago, I was saddened to learn at a countywide music festival that the only district not represented was East Ramapo because elementary children had no orchestral music program. How many musicians from noted classical performers or literal rock stars to passionate amateurs got their start in their elementary school music room? This is true of all of the arts, sports and enrichment activities. While I am proud that in Rockland’ 2015 budget, the County Legislature was able to preserve cultural, counseling and other programs that directly benefit the children of East Ramapo, the responsibility for providing these life-changing enrichment classes falls on the school district. It’s especially upsetting when students living blocks away from East Ramapo receive vital enrichment classes. It’s a mistake to dismiss how deeply the arts and athletics are valued by the public school community, myself included.
The East Ramapo School district is in need of appropriate oversight. The current state of affairs hurts all students, both public and private. That is why I commend our state representatives for taking action in Albany designed to address the unique challenges of this district in order to ensure that the students of East Ramapo receive the same quality of education as their peers in neighboring districts.
In truth, ensuring a quality education to the students of East Ramapo will require a more complicated and comprehensive solution crafted by those with an expertise in education greater than mine, a solution that provides the district with adequate funding based on its demographic reality and also respects the needs and rights of all residents of the district. For the present, however, the school district can not continue on its current course amidst worsening acrimony in our community. For the sake of the public and private school students, I recommend your advocacy on this item.
Very truly yours,
Alden H. Wolfe
Chairman of the Legislature