This American Life 534: "A Not-So-Simple Majority"

Once upon a time I thought we might generate a weekly TAL thread, but the fact is that most of the time the show just doesn’t stick with me. I usually enjoy at least half of it, but I don’t usually find myself thinking about the show for long after I’m done with it.

This one was challenging, fascinating, a bit disturbing (on a couple of levels), and seemingly (to me, at least) as fairly reported as it could be.

The episode page is here. In short, it’s the story of the East Ramapo, NY school board in the recent past. The community has had a large influx of Hassidic Jewish residents, most of whom send their children to yeshivas instead of the public schools. For various reasons, mostly seeming to be an unwillingness to pay increased property taxes for services they weren’t using (the public schools), the Hassidim begin to vote en bloc for Hassidic school board candidates until they have a majority on the board, at which point they begin cutting services to the public schools. Hilarity ensues.

I’m still not sure what to make of this. The school board members really don’t look good in this piece. I’m a firm believer in the social contract - that just because you don’t avail yourself of a particular government service doesn’t mean you get to opt out of it. On the other hand, this is kind of the way democracy works. A majority of the community voted for each of these school board members seemingly fair and square.

I won’t get into the attorneys the school board hires. Assholes through and through.

The school board members really lost me with their invoking of Nazi imagery and memories of the Holocaust in “defending” themselves against their critics.

Unfortunately, that’s also where I got uncomfortable for other reasons. I had a knee-jerk dislike of everyone on that side of the issue from that point forward, and I was forced to question whether there wasn’t a bit of anti-Semitism in my reaction. Was I just thinking, “Oh, there go the Jews again, bringing up the Holocaust?” I don’t think so; I think I just don’t like those particular Jews. Not because they are Jews, but because they seem like assholes. I still don’t like that my head went there at all.

Anyway, did anyone else listen to this episode? Thoughts? Comments? Anyone here actually from East Ramapo that can shed additional light on the matter?

I didn’t catch this one; I listen to when I can, but there are a lot of repeats, so I don’t know if a weekly thread would work.

The issue (as you presented it anyway) is not new to small-town politics. There was that small town in Oregon that got overrun with some Ashram-wannabe place, and the newcomers were voting to change things.

Leaving aside the tactics (comparisons to the holocaust, hiring asshole lawyers) I am not unsympathetic to the Hassidic point of view. At what point does the social contract break down because it benefits too few people? In this case, public schools were being under-used for an understandable reason. Maybe (I’m not saying absolutely, just maybe) the original townspeople need to be more flexible with change and come up with alternative methods of schooling for what is left of the town that needs it.

Having said that, I hate when Jews of any stripe claim that opposition to what they want is in any way like the holocaust. There is no excuse for that.

Yeah, that was an intriguing episode. I agree with your dislike of invoking the Nazis, but I will point out that that was just one guy (at least who expressed that opinion openly).

Public schools are as good as they are because everyone pays into them, not just the ones with kids. This has pluses and minuses. On the plus side, a good school system is a benefit for the whole community, not just the kids. A good school is something the community can be proud of, and businesses are more attracted to opening a branch or franchise in an area that is willing to invest in quality education (probably assuming that they have more money to spend in general). On the other hand, should someone be required to pay for something they don’t personally use?

But all that’s not really the point, except by extension. The point of the episode is about how much authority should the majority be allowed to have. Ostensibly, we live in a democracy which means by definition that the majority rules. However, the reality is that we live in a republic, not a true democracy. That means that sometimes the minority will get its way, if its for the good of the whole. I think that in this case, the system is failing. The majority is harming the community it’s meant to be helping. Consequently, the broader educational system is trying to step in and fix things, but they haven’t yet been successful. I have heard of cases where the state education board has stepped in, disbanded the locally elected board and took over running the school itself, and I suspect that ultimately that’s where this situation is headed. This board has already demonstrated bad management practices, which in and of itself might be enough for the state to take over.

I just listened to this. I wish you had posted this in another forum, because this was just an infuriating hour to listen to.

Yeah, I heard it last week. I had a similar reaction.

I did not hear that episode, but I do recall a similar situation in the late 1980s in San Diego.

Back then, a conservative christian woman got elected to a school board in a newly incorporated city, and she started getting policies adopted to require biology classes to give “50% of the teaching time” to creationist views and geology and geography classes to give “50% of the teaching time” to young earth models. I think the last straw came when she tried to set a policy that said the math & physics teachers had to emphasize that “their stuff” about space was merely theory and was contrary to the Truth of the Bible*. She was either recalled or booted off or somehow removed from that school board and a lot of news, editorials, and lawsuits resulted.

She was either setting or following an ugly precedent. The Texas School Book Review guys are pulling similar $#!+ on a nationwide scale with biology, history, social studies, and all sorts of subjects.


  • The weird thing about this (to me, now) is that it wasn’t until a couple years later that the Vatican announced it had ‘un-condemned’ (or whatever the correct term should be) Galileo for the heresy of suggesting the universe was not geocentric.

No such possibility here. By virtue of having the majority, this group has a complete stranglehold on these school districts which they have no vested interest in improving and every interest in ruining. Part of this episode was that there is a pattern here where a school district is purposely run into the ground, and the school itself is then sold to the Yeshiva.

This American Life tries to show both sides of every story, and they seemed to have a hard time finding the other side on this one.

There’s the famous quote that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch” which seems particularly apt here.

America seems to have a strong preference for local devolution whenever possible that leads to situations like this being routine. In Australia, education is run at a state level and there are no local school boards and the entire situation seems much more sane and sedate.

And one of the truly fascinating things about the East Ramapo ordeal (to me, at least) is that, while there is certainly a large religious component to the situation on the whole, there is so far (at least as I have seen reported) nothing of a church/state issue here. The Hassidim aren’t trying to make the public schools into yeshivas, they’re not trying to get Judaism taught in the public schools, or anything like that. I get real nervous when religion gets near public schools, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

There were also the two campaign ads they played that invoked images of Nazi Germany, so stands to reason it was more than one person.

They aren’t bothering trying to get Judaism into the public schools, because it appears that the public schools are just a temporary transition period until the school is sold and literally becomes a religious school. The goal seems to be to be as awful as possible, run the families with school age children out of town, and then buy the schools at a discount for the Yeshivas.

Any chance of moving this to GD or is a new thread warranted? Or even BBQ.

That’s right, carlb! I forgot. My bad.

I got about 15-20 minutes into this episode and haven’t gone back as it was pissing me off. I almost never abandon a TIL episode, but I might on this one because everyone tells me that the situation only gets worse!

I agree, but I guess what I was trying to say was that the actions that the school board have taken thus far do not (so far as has been reported and as far as my lay understanding goes) seem to run afoul of any church/state constitutional issues like I thought they might. The school board is engaging in rampant dickishness (IMHO; there’s another forum this could go to :)), and said dickishness clearly has a religious motivation, but it seems like they are steering clear of any actions which could bring a constitutional challenge. There may be specific actions that run afoul of the law in a few places (sounds like there are some questions about the way special ed. programs are funded and run), but I don’t see a blatant attempt to insert Jewish (broadly) or Hassidic (specifically) doctrine or teachings or anything like that into the public education system. Listening to the episode, I thought that was where things might be headed, and the fact that they didn’t end up there is what I found curious.

I hear you. Fortunately, I had to stop and do something else about 20 minutes in. Gave me some time to cool down and go back to it. I’m not saying it gets any better, but a couple of breaks might help you get through it.

I hear you. I think there is a religious difference in that the Hasidic community has no real interest in pushing any sort of religion onto non-believers; unlike fundamentalist Christians, they have no interest in converting others to any sort of belief system.

I just listened to it. One thing that struck me was that in the few years the Hassidic folks have been running the board, the budget did go up 33%–all of which apparently comes from property taxes–but that was still relatively lower than other local districts. Because of rising costs (including something about unions?), this wasn’t enough to prevent major cuts. That’s a little crazy, right? I wouldn’t be thrilled if my taxes were going up 10% a year. That point was a little glossed over, but if costs are growing that quickly, it seems reasonable to look into what’s going on there and see if that can’t be fixed.

However, the massively dickish behavior by the new board and their reprehensible lawyers is just inexcusable. Really interesting case of democracy gone bad.

Thanks for explaining what was going on in the story…I came in to it late and couldn’t listen to the whole thing, and haven’t had a chance to hear it again. The parts I heard were so depressing and distressing…especially the poor high school girl who talked about have three lunch periods and two study halls in an eight period day, and how when she presented these facts to the “school board” they told her she had faked the schedules and was lying. The amount of hatred in the statement from the one board member about how he didn’t like paying taxes to support public schools was shocking…and I didn’t even hear the bit about the Holocaust. Their willingness to cause harm to the educations of all those children was stunning.

That wasn’t a high school student, it was a teacher (I think) who gathered some old schedules to show the board. I actually wasn’t so moved by that because I knew people in high school with similar schedules, chosen because they were easy. I would have been more impressed with statistics than a small selection of schedules hand-picked to make a point.

I’ll have to relisten to be sure, but the point was more that no matter what anyone said to the board, they just answered with “That’s a lie, that’s faked, that didn’t happen, that’s not going on.” I imagine those executive sessions were just training sessions on how to pretend the other people in the community didn’t exist or matter.