When a notice came through our mail last week from the Englewood Board of Education telling us, just 10 days before the commencement of the new school year, that the board had elected to terminate the bus service from Englewood to the Yeshiva of North Jersey where our children are students, I was hardly surprised. Yes, the bus had been provided for 19 years and was suddenly canceled without so much as an explanation. And yes, I and the other Englewood parents who were affected by this arbitrary notice pay tens of thousands of dollars each year for a school system whose only benefit to us was this lousy bus. So why wasn’t I startled to be so shabbily treated? Because, living in New Jersey in general, and in Englewood in particular, one becomes immune to the arrogance and condescending demeanor of local government and the arbitrary nature of decisions that adversely affect the citizenry.
As a family, we are already forced to employ a driver to take our teenage daughters to Bruriah High School in Elizabeth, and the prospect of now having to get a second driver to take our children to River Edge was just too much. So I and a group of YNJ parents called an emergency meeting at my home this past Sunday night attended by our mayor, Michael Wildes, Charlotte Bennett Schoen, our councilwoman, and a member of the Englewood Board of Education. The BOE representative shared with us some astonishing facts.
The city of Englewood has approximately 3,000 children in its public school system, upon which approximately $’1,000 per annum is spent per child. Even with this titanic sum, more akin to college than grade-school costs, the city’s schools so consistently underperform that kids from nearby towns are bused to our city in what many regard as a brazen attempt to raise the grade-point average. Moreover, if the large Orthodox Jewish population of Englewood were to cease sending their children to private Jewish day schools and place them in Englewood’s public schools instead, the system, already struggling to meet these astonishing overheads, would simply collapse. In other words, the colossal property taxes we are all paying to ostensibly give our children an education could not even provide for that education should we elect to exercise that option.
Our only benefit as Orthodox Jews was this bus system, which now had been terminated and for which we would receive a $8’8 voucher for the year, payable months later, in January and June. And it turned out that this stipend was so low that when the Yeshiva of North Jersey approached a bus company to pool together all the parents’ vouchers and provide a bus for ” children, the bus company rejected it out of hand.
Every year, in this state, tens of thousands of religious parents — Jewish, Catholic, Christian, Muslim, and other — pay incalculable sums to send their children to parochial schools so that their children can receive a religiously inspired, values-based education. And those parents are then still expected to pay enormous taxes to support the local public schools even when many of those schools are not just woefully inadequate, but may even constitute a malign influence on their children.
To be sure, I do not wish to denigrate public schools, especially since my wife and I are indebted to the Englewood public school system for educating one of our sons for the past two years in a special-needs program that greatly impressed us. Indeed, when it comes to special needs, Englewood truly excels.
But public schools, by their very nature of being secular and values-free, are limited in what they can offer students. Should parents, for example, have to send their teenage daughter to a secular, public high school where more than 50 percent of the student body, on average, is already having sex? Is it not a fair assumption that immersion in that kind of environment will have a direct bearing on the choices their daughter will make?
Of course, religious parents have little recourse to remedy this situation because of draconian laws separating church and state that have reached the level of the absurd. Why, for instance, can parochial schools not receive tax money for secular subjects like mathematics and history, or even their school lunch programs? After all, religious kids also need to eat. It seems incredible that in a country that has belief in God stamped on its currency, parents who wish to instill within their children a simple love for tradition and faith are punished with the double whammy of high taxes and high tuition.
I for one do not object to having to pay to support my local public schools, even though my children, with the exception of one child for a two-year period, do not use them. On the contrary, Judaism passionately advocates a staunch civic-mindedness and passionate support for education. And the Jewish community dare never distance itself from its wider communal obligations, even as it is establishes its own communal organizations.
But amid all of this, it is really that selfish to want to receive something in return for paying some of the highest property taxes in the country? And one measly bus service is not asking for much.
So how could the Board of Education have canceled it so suddenly and with barely any time for the parents to find a substitute? Because the Jewish community of Englewood, like so many others around the country, is shockingly complacent about its rights. Viewing local politics largely as a boring distraction from the truly big issues, the Jewish residents of Englewood pour their time into big projects like fund-raisers for senators and congressmen who support Israel. These are, of course, noble and inspiring goals. But of equal importance is the matter of keeping the costs of sending children to Jewish day schools from soaring into the stratosphere.
Last summer, in an unexpected honor, I received the American Jewish Press Association’s Award for Excellence in Commentary. The article for which the award was given revolved simply around the argument that the only guarantor of Jewish commitment was Jewish education. We in Englewood who send our kids to Jewish schools do not so because we reject our neighbors, but because we wish for our children to embrace their tradition.
It is an act for which parents ought to be rewarded, or at least supported, rather than punished.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year Competition and host of TLC’s Shalom in the Home, is the author most recently of "Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children" (HarperCollins). His Website is www.shmuley.com.