If you’ve hung around Stamford Hill you’ll know that grievances about schools are probably the most frequent and most deeply felt type of complaints you’ll hear. Of these complaints, the most bitter are not even about the slapdash and shambolic way some of the local mosdos are run, though heaven knows there’s enough to complain about there, but the way that unaccountable school leaders treat parents with disdain, contempt and what sometimes appears to be nothing less than ritual humiliation.
Before I describe what I believe the solution to this problem looks like, it’s worth thinking about what the ordinary mechanisms are for keeping school leaders in check within the community and why they frequently fail or don’t operate at all.
For schools that are part of an international Chassidus, the official way for parents to seek redress of grievances is to turn to the Rebbe in whose name and under whose sufferance the school’s leadership operate. Some of these international Chassidic empires are run by dynamic leaders concerned with growing their Chassidus who will leap into action and call their local franchise to account, others … aren’t. Some Stamford Hill readers will probably know of examples where a Rebbe in New York or Israel has sent in his ‘inspectors’ who licked a chaotic school into shape. They will also likely know of examples where local governors run their schools like a fiefdom with no evident oversight at all.
However, even where the formal chain of command malfunctions, there still exists an informal mechanism for asserting parental rights whenever a school is centered on a particular Chassidus. If parents and governors go to shul and mikveh together, then there is a limit to how badly the latter can treat the former. No-one really likes being in a room where everyone hates you.
The schools in which parents have the least leverage, then, are precisely those independent establishments that, in theory are supposed to belong to the community at large. Here, there is no higher court of appeal, and governors do not have to face the prospect of attending a shul full of resentful parents. Governors here have something very close to absolute power, and do a sterling job of demonstrating the maxim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The typical arc of an independent school works as follows. At first, they are founded by a group of parents who simply want a place for their children to learn. Inevitably, the ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’ kicks in and the school is soon run by a small number of people. At first, the primary requirement for being a member of this group is a big wallet. An independent school whose parents are not, by and large, especially wealthy, will always have a chronic shortage of money, and the primary duty of governors is to make sure there’s enough money at the end of each month, through fundraising when possible, and from their own pocket if not, which is not an infrequent occurrence. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and it is generally understood that the ones responsible for making sure the gas bill is paid each month gets to make the rules. For ordinary parents who may chafe at this or that decision made by Mr. Moneybags, it is quite literally the price of having somewhere to send their children every day.
But then a rather odd dynamic starts to develop. Over time, the financial burden on the governors steadily decreases: loans are paid off, a stable fundraising base is developed, and parents are served up an escalating number of special fees and charges. However, instead of reciprocating by relinquishing some of their power, the governing class guard it ever more carefully. Money bought the original power, but that power once bought is self sustaining.
Moreover, as the financial burden of being a governor declines, a new breed of governors steadily takes over whose interest in running a school is, to use a polite euphemism, rather more ideological. Whereas the early plutocrats were mostly in it for the kovod, the new breed have a very earnest and serious interest in what your wife wears around town and they would like to call you in for a meeting to get a closer look. As time goes by, and a school develops its own entrenched culture and habits, the actual material contribution of the governors to the educational side of things dwindles away and their central, almost sole, duty is bullying parents.
So what can we do about it? If you want to speak truth to power and not walk away with a limp, you need to understand what that power rests upon so you can kick it away. During the years of plutocrat rule, the source of governor power is obvious: they can threaten to walk away and leave you broke. The power of the commissars, however, rests on something quite different, namely the fact that in any given confrontation with a pair of parents, they have a bigger weapon than their opponent. Since every Charedi school is oversubscribed, governors of an independent Charedi school have full license to use the admissions process to victimise parents who get on their nerves. Actually expelling a pupil because her father gave you a piece of his mind might be going a bit far, but it’s easy enough just to give a rejection notice to the next child they have in the queue, no explanation required. No mother and father want to make a fuss for fear of becoming a target and so the parent body as a whole stays divided and conquered.
To solve this problem there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The tried and trusted solution to imbalance of power in individual negotiations is for the weaker parties to negotiate as a block, in other words to form a union.
Here’s what I propose. First, all or the great majority of parents sign up as members of a union and sign a declaration acknowledging it as their representative in negotiations with the school. Second, whenever a parent has a grievance they take it to the elected union representative, who records it and saves it for a scheduled meeting with the board of governors. Third, at this meeting, all complaints are raised and the response of the governors recorded. Finally, the union will publish a periodic report detailing the response of the governors to all the complaints raised. The goal here is to completely reverse the balance of power by giving parents anonymity and holding governors, as individuals, to account so that the entire community can judge for themselves whether their actions are reasonable and moral.
It doesn’t take much knowledge of the last 100 years to know that a properly organised union can be an immensely powerful force. I think that if this model can be made to work in an individual school then it could become a real community phenomenon. Ultimately, unionisation could be the tool that the Charedi street uses to extract concessions from all unaccountable institutions. That, though, is for the future. In the meantime, a school-level union is a practical solution to a need that becomes more urgent every day.