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Logging On To Federal Funds

Logging On To Federal Funds

Our lead story this week is Part I (the second and third parts can be found on our website) of a three-part exploration of how a relatively small number of haredi yeshivas in New York have received tens of millions of dollars in federal funds designated for Internet and other telecommunication technology.

This is despite the fact that the schools in question don’t give students access to the Internet or, in many cases, computers. What’s more, the schools actively oppose the Internet as a threat to their way of life.

The four-month investigation by Associate Editor Julie Wiener and Special Correspondent Hella Winston found, for instance, that Yeshivat Avir Yakov, an all-boys chasidic school in Spring Valley with some 3,000 students, collected more than $1 million in the last two years through E-rate, the federal program that subsidizes telecommunication services and infrastructure for schools and libraries, with larger discounts going to those serving low-income populations. But Avir Yakov does not appear to have or use computers. Overall, Jewish schools enrolled in the E-rate program account for 4 percent of the state’s K-12 students but received 22 percent of the allocations. “Ten schools — all but one chasidic — collectively were approved for nearly $9 million in E-rate-funded services in 2011,” the article notes, “almost one-third of the Jewish total.”

Officials from several of the Jewish schools receiving the most funding did not respond to repeated attempts to interview them about the discrepancies between funds received and technological services provided to their students.

The other piece of the puzzle is the role of service providers who receive E-rate business. It is unclear what technological service they provide the schools in question.

Where is the accountability of the schools and the service providers?

What emerges from this murky picture is that the E-rate program seems prone to being manipulated, with insufficient oversight. It is noteworthy that the Jewish Education Project, part of whose work is to help Jewish day schools and yeshivas, stopped dealing with the E-rate program several years ago, primarily because of problems related to fraud.

The other reality is that chasidic communities have large and growing populations and often face economic hardships. Yeshiva administrators appear to be taking advantage of federal subsidies for technology and using them for more basic needs. Balancing their financial plight with the ethical, if not legal, mandate to conform to federal guidelines is an issue that requires attention. One would hope the communities would focus on preparing their children to be economically self-sufficient through job training and career guidance. For now, a segment of the Jewish community deeply devoted to serving God should be aware of the element of chillul Hashem, or disgrace to God’s name, when it appears that its members are taking advantage of the very government that provides for them.

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