Advocacy

Education in the Spotlight

The Department of Education was established by the Department of Education Organization Act (Pub. L. 96-88) of October 17, 1979. The US Department of Education is the agency of the federal government that establishes policy for, administers and coordinates most federal assistance to education. It assists the president in executing his education policies for the nation and in implementing laws enacted by Congress. The Department’s mission is to serve America’s students—to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.

President Trump last year issued an executive order directing the Office of Management and Budget to propose a reorganization of the federal government to “eliminate unnecessary agencies, components of agencies, and agency programs.” With regard to education, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos want to spend more than $1 billion on private school vouchers and other school choice plans. Their proposals also call for slashing the Education Department’s budget and devoting more resources to career training, at the expense of four-year colleges and universities.

The US Department of Education, under Secretary Betsy Devos has or is currently:

  • Rescinding Obama-era guidance on how colleges should approach sexual assault on campus. Interim guidelines allow colleges to raise the burden of proof when assessing claims of sexual violence. Critics say the guidance is biased against the accused.

  • Formalized its policy on complaints from transgender students barred from restrooms that correspond with their gender identity: it won’t investigate or take action.

  • Proposed a two-year delay of an Obama-era rule that addresses disproportionate identification of students of color for special education—and disproportionate discipline of these students.

  • Completely removed any mention of systemic investigations from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights instructions to investigators and is now telling investigators to ignore the broader context of a discrimination complaint, and has made it far easier to dismiss complaints. As of last August, the civil rights division had dismissed more than 1,500 complaints, 900 of them without an investigation.

  • Announced that state efforts to regulate collection companies—many of which have been accused of unfair consumer practices—are inappropriate and that they “undermine” federal authority, despite objections from Republican attorneys general and consumer advocates who called it a move to protect debt collectors at the expense of student loan borrowers across the country

  • Reversed Obama-era rules that allow students at colleges with a history of fraudulent and deceptive practices to seek debt relief from the Education Department, and that allow the department to revoke federal funding from for-profit colleges. The department’s inspector general’s office found that the Trump administration had not approved a single application for loan relief, even though the department received more than 25,000 claims last year. In the wake of lawsuits from state attorneys general and consumer groups, the IG’s office demanded the department’s student aid division take action on loan forgiveness—officials subsequently announced they would approve 12,900 claims, but deny 8,600 others.

  • Stopped sharing information with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and let the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools continue to act as an accreditor, even though it had certified notorious schools like Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, which closed down in the wake of fraud investigations, leaving tens of thousands of students saddled with debt and useless degrees. The department also let for-profit colleges convert themselves to nonprofits to “skirt regulations.”

That’s some of the bad news. However, the latest federal budget, which showed that compromise and collaboration between the parties, if possible, included an ray of sunshine for education. The Omnibus Bill increased federal funding after almost a decade of stagnation. This includes more funding for K–12, a funded Stop School Violence Act, more money for black colleges and universities, Head Start, Pell Grants recipients, Impact Aid, STEM education and rural schools.

In a repudiation of Secretary DeVos, lawmakers blocked a new system that contracts out individual loan servicing tasks to different companies and her efforts to dismantle her agency’s central budget office. Also losing out were most of DeVos’s school choice proposals except that charter schools got a $58 million boost, bringing the total funding to $400 million.

The omnibus bill included an additional $8.5 million to the Education Department’s civil rights office, which DeVos has sought to downsize. Appropriators said the money should go toward staffing up the office, instead of the proposed cut of 46 positions. Appropriators also directed the department to maintain its 12 regional civil rights offices, defeating DeVos’s proposal to reduce the number to four.

After our small collective sigh of relief, we should note that many issues mentioned above still need our attention and advocacy efforts. Those who want to dismantle public education have made inroads and they are not giving up or going away.

Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair

Sources: AP, quartz.comvoanews.com, US news, bostonglobe.com, Politico, Washington Post, Mother Jones

Gun Control

A number of our members joined the recent March for Our Lives gun-control rally in Morristown. (Photo credit: Elaine Martini)

I missed the March for Our Lives in DC, primarily because I was on a plane to Mexico, but I did read about it, saw the best of the signs, and “kvelled” with pride at the students, as if they were my own family. What those young people have achieved in a short time is amazing and if we as a nation can stay with them and keep the momentum going, we may finally see some real changes to the regulation of guns.

However, this issue is big, sprawling, complex and emotional and one short article would only touch on a small part of it. I have, instead compiled some sources that cover parts of the issue and there are many more out there on the web that present the pros and cons of some of the arguments. And that is, I think, the crux of the matter. It is an argument because we cannot agree on the fact that America has a gun problem.

We constitute less than 5 percent of the world’s population yet we hold almost 50 percent of civilian-owned guns in the world. We live in a time of partisanship, information silos, and have lost the ability to hold civilized debates on this most contentious issue. Our only counter to this is to be informed about the opposition and its playbook, know our facts and present them without hostility. I would suggest that it would be useful, in this season of elections and candidate forums, for us to develop some questions, talking points and positions as we make our case. Go to NCJW.org for their resources on gun control, lobbying and visiting legislators if you’re representing the Section. And remember to use the guidelines and resources that Judaism teaches us.

Here are some resources on the Internet:

Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair

Sexual Assault: It’s Not Just a “Women’s Issue”

Sexual assault and harassment allegations by courageous women accusing Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly, followed by the #MeToo campaign, have made America aware of the prevalence of sexual violence in our society. The #Metoo campaign, in particular, prompted an avalanche that started rolling and is exposing thousands of sexual predators locally and globally. Sexual harassment has become a hot topic.

America truly has more than a problem. Pick any industry or institution and the stories are there, indicating that there are no cultural boundaries for sexual assault and harassment. We need to do more than root out the abusers; we need to rethink our sexual culture, which makes sex objects of females and rewards men for aggression, for testing boundaries, and doing the unexpected. Men in such a culture might become predators particularly when they are powerful, famous, and protected. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said.

Culture of Silence

Sexual predation happens because men have more power than women and because they can get away with it. It’s acceptable—not by the women but by the culture of silence that permits and condones such behavior. Women are beginning to speak out, but we need men who know who is doing the harassing to stop colluding with the sexual predators and speak out, too. Collusion enabled Weinstein to continue for 30 years. This is how a rape and sexual harassment culture works.

As women come forward and the names of sexual predators circulate through all forms of media, as companies and institutions begin to enforce the rules they say they have, the aggressors will begin to face consequences. It may mean that men lose their jobs or are blackballed from jobs they want. It may mean they face the legal consequences of their actions. It may also mean that the numbers of survivors speaking out and the sheer magnitude of the problem leads to attention fatigue, and the issue slides out of focus again. And, as with domestic violence, there will be those women whose false claims cause a backlash that taint the credibility of survivors. 

We should also be aware of and sensitive to those women survivors who have not spoken out because they feel that exposure diminishes their trauma and can even retraumatize survivors. Actress Rachel Wood, who has disclosed her rape and sexual abuse, has tweeted, “Has anyone elses [sic] PTSD been triggered thru [sic] the roof? I hate that these feelings of danger are coming back.”

The media, our taste for the sensational, and the anger that drives us, must find a balance between continuing to expose perpetrators, showing solidarity with women, and respecting the due process of law.

And this really is not just a women’s issue. There are reports that 23 percent of men and boys experience sexual violence or harassment over their lifetime. The rates of rape or sexual assault are lower for men than for women, but males report that sexual coercion, which pressures or manipulates men and boys into sexual activity they don’t want, happens at a rate nearly equal to that experienced by women.

Changing the Culture

Changing the culture will take time and means investing in prevention programs that address the causes of sexually abusive behavior. Current prevention programs are usually aimed at teens and young adults, and focus on teaching girls and women how to decrease their risk of being assaulted. These types of programs are less than effective because they do not address the reality that most assaults are committed by someone known and trusted by the teens and young adults, by someone in power, such as a teacher, supervisor, close friend or family member.

We can each do our part to change the sexual culture. We can be involved in ensuring that prevention begins in early childhood and continues for life. As parents and grandparents, we can find teachable moments in our homes and we can work with educators to teach our children skills to prevent violence. Skills like these include empathy for others, communication, and problem solving that are augmented by programs that promote healthy sexual behavior, respect for self and others, and the true meaning of consent.

Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair

Sources: theconversation.com, health.com, news1130.com, vox.com

January Is Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month

Many members of our Section have worked hard over the years, joining the fight against human trafficking by reaching out to our local mayors to have each town proclaim National Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Day to be January 11 every year. We educated hotel workers, rallied on the Morristown Green, and advocated for the successful passage of New Jersey’s comprehensive human trafficking legislation. Then we held a Fair Trade Fair at County College of Morris and brought a rabbinic intern from T’ruah to tell us what it was like to help Florida tomato workers successfully organize for better wages and working conditions.

Our Section’s guru and sage, Lesley Frost, led us to help form the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking. The Coalition has grown from just a handful of organizations to over 150. Originally fostered by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, it has become a free-standing 501(c)3 through the dedicated work of Sue Rosenthal and Susan Waldman and the extremely generous pro bono work of Meyer Rosenthal. The Coalition has a firm foundation through its strategic plan shaped through the pro bono work of Bill Neigher.

Vibrant and bursting with activity, the Coalition has lots of committees that anyone can join, including Education, Legislation, Service Providers, Slave-Free Commerce, and the Arts.

We showcased the many facets of the Coalition’s work at a Virtual Summit on Facebook Live on Thursday, January 11, 8:00 am-3:00 pm. Each facet of the Coalition had panel discussions, taking questions from the live audience and everyone on Facebook. Susan Neigher was among the presenters. The event took place at Jewish Federation offices on Route 10 in Whippany.

We also recognized the people and organizations who have led the fight against human trafficking in New Jersey at our Liberator Awards Celebration on Sunday, January 28 at 7:00 pm at the Calvary Temple International in Wayne. Sue Rosenthal and Susan Waldman led the nominating committee to select awardees. The Founder Award was presented to Melanie Roth Gorelick and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.

Cabinet Nominees for the New Administration: Expose and Oppose

The proposed cabinet for the new administration has been described as “light” in government experience and “heavy” in wealth and business connections, although to date the numbers show a split slightly tilted toward wealth and connections. While it is no surprise that the new president’s background predisposes him to favor that tilt, it is distressing that some of the nominees, by their past actions and words, are seriously opposed to the mission of the departments they may lead, and face little opposition for confirmation.

For example, part of the mission of the Education Department is to ”ensure equal access to educational opportunity for all,” yet nominee Betsy De Vos, has no experience in public education, and espouses greatly expanding charter schools and voucher programs, programs that have not ensured equal access. Scott Pruitt, who has spent much of his tenure as attorney general for Oklahoma suing the Environmental Protection Agency, and whose career has been funded in part by the oil industry, is the chosen candidate to lead the EPA. And Andrew Pudzer, a fast-food executive with a dubious labor record who opposes minimum wage laws, is slated for the Department of Labor. The list goes on and on.

The Democrats have little hope of seriously influencing the outcome unless Republican senators are pressured by their constituents to vote against specific nominees. Rex Tillerson, nominated for secretary of state has drawn opposition from Republican Senators Marco Rubio and John McCain, because in his 41 years at Exxon Mobil he has forged close relations with the Russian leadership and the Russian State Oil Company. Coupled with the Russian hacking scandal, this nomination is under heavy scrutiny.

Part of the confirmation process requires background checks, but only three Senate committees have the authority to require nominees to release their tax returns. Each committee can amend its rules to require this, something that most states require of their officeholders, but there is no movement toward that in the Senate. In fact, the refusal of the new president to release his financial and full medical records during the campaign upended 40 years of tradition and set an example that many in his administration may follow unless compelled to do otherwise. Unless there is full disclosure of business interests and connections, it will be impossible to know if the individual actions of the administration are truly in the public interest or whether actions by foreign entities are seeking to “curry favor.” For example, the embassy of Kuwait has held an event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown in the past, but suddenly cancelled this year’s contract and moved the event to the Trump Washington Hotel. Were they pressured or did they see an advantage in this?

By the time you read this article, some or all of the cabinet nominees may have been confirmed and left with the foxes guarding the henhouse. What are we to do? Expose and oppose. Be vigilant about new laws and rule changes coming from Washington, which I will follow and pass along, and monitor their effect at the local level, where you can have an impact in mitigating or overturning such changes. There is a lot of advocacy experience in the Section and the NCJW Washington office is always available for advice and help. We are only on a detour, one full of roadblocks as we continue our work for women and children, social justice and the rights and freedoms of all.

Lesley Frost

Racism in America

The amorphous hope that the election of Barack Obama had moved us into a post-racial society has totally dissipated by the events in Charlottesville this past August. There are many reasons for the rise of white supremacy in its various forms, but the truth is that racism has always been a constant in American society. Progress to reduce racism has been undeniable and there are segments of the population where there is no overt racism and they stand firmly against it. Yet we all ignore or misread the subtle racism in everyday life.

Low wages, bad housing, incarceration, substandard education–these are all forms of racism when they disproportionately affect one segment of the population and society acknowledges those issues but does not correct them.

Unfortunately, when corrections have been made, such as school integration, affirmative action and voting rights, there is a backlash that, coupled with demographic projections that “whites” will be a minority in this century, has compounded the racists’ anxiety and anger.

There is no gene that makes us one race or another and none that makes a person a racist. We all share the same basic genetic makeup, the same DNA, and are descended from common ancestors who migrated from Africa. Racism is a social construct and we learn it from the cues and attitudes around us. So if it is leaned, can it be unlearned? Yes. And there is a lot of information, support and concrete action available to us all.

NCJW has been in the forefront of social justice since its founding in the late 1800s. Go to the website ncjw.org and click on the Act button. Look for the segment “Educate Yourself about White Supremacy in America,” and click the Take Action button This will take you to a series of outside websites with information and actions you can take as individuals and as a group.

Our West Morris Section has a long history of working to eliminate bias and hate in our community. This was exemplified by the “What Prejudice Means to Me” Contest that we ran in local schools for 18 years. While reviving the Contest may not be what is needed now, the Section can use the NCJW website and other resources to explore ways to act locally. Being small in number has never deterred us in the past and if you think that you need size to have an impact, you have never been in a room with a couple of mosquitoes!

Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair

The Electoral College

The existence and duties of the presidential electors and the electoral college are so little known today that most American voters believe that they are voting directly for a president and vice president on election day. The electors may be well-known people, such as governors, state legislators, or other state and local officials, but they generally do not receive public recognition as electors, and, in most states, the names of individual electors do not appear anywhere on the ballot, where only those of the candidates for president and vice president appear, usually prefaced by the words “electors for.” Electoral votes are commonly referred to as having “been awarded” to the winning candidate, as if no human beings were involved in the process.

he Electoral College is a process, included in the Constitution as a compromise between electing the president by a vote in Congress and by a popular vote of qualified citizens. The process has three parts: the selection of the electors, the meeting of the electors where they vote for president and vice president, and the counting of the electoral votes by Congress.

Electoral votes are allocated among the states based on the Census. Every state is allocated two votes for its senators in the U.S. Senate, plus a number of votes equal to the number of its members in the US House of Representatives. Under the 23rd Amendment of the Constitution, the District of Columbia is allocated three electors and treated like a state for purposes of the Electoral College. Effective for the 2020 presidential elections, the total number of electoral votes is 538 and the majority needed to elect is 270.

The electors are generally chosen by the candidate’s political party, but state laws vary on how the electors are selected. Aside from Members of Congress, and persons holding offices of “trust or profit” under the Constitution, anyone may serve as an elector. There is no constitutional provision or federal law that requires electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their states. Electors can be bound by state law or by pledges to political parties. Most states have a “winner-take-all” system that awards all electors to the winning presidential candidate. Maine and Nebraska each have a variation of “proportional representation.”

The Electoral College as originally devised was a failure by 1800. Amendments and the role of political parties have over time produced a patchwork version that has muddled along, but hardly represents any founding father’s vision of electors as independent actors, weighing the merits of competing presidential candidates. The irony today is that the founders’ original intent was to forestall the “elevation of someone unworthy” through a purely popular national vote.

It may be argued that the current process of primaries and the Electoral College do serve a purpose by narrowing the field of potential candidates and making sure any successful candidate is popular across different parts of the country, but there is certainly room for improvement. The climate today would seem to favor the National Popular Vote bill that would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. New Jersey is one of 11 states with 165 electoral votes that has already signed this bill into law and it will take effect when enacted by states with 105 more electoral votes. Working through national organizations such as NCJW to spread the word and encourage action in more states, each of us can still make a difference. For details go to nationalpopularvote.com

Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair

Sourcesarchives.gov, history.com, thefederalist.com

Cabinet Nominees for the New Administration: Expose and Oppose

The proposed cabinet for the new administration has been described as “light” in government experience and “heavy” in wealth and business connections, although to date the numbers show a split slightly tilted toward wealth and connections. While it is no surprise that the new president’s background predisposes him to favor that tilt, it is distressing that some of the nominees, by their past actions and words, are seriously opposed to the mission of the departments they may lead, and face little opposition for confirmation.

For example, part of the mission of the Education Department is to ”ensure equal access to educational opportunity for all,” yet nominee Betsy De Vos, has no experience in public education, and espouses greatly expanding charter schools and voucher programs, programs that have not ensured equal access. Scott Pruitt, who has spent much of his tenure as attorney general for Oklahoma suing the Environmental Protection Agency, and whose career has been funded in part by the oil industry, is the chosen candidate to lead the EPA. And Andrew Pudzer, a fast-food executive with a dubious labor record who opposes minimum wage laws, is slated for the Department of Labor. The list goes on and on.

The Democrats have little hope of seriously influencing the outcome unless Republican senators are pressured by their constituents to vote against specific nominees. Rex Tillerson, nominated for secretary of state has drawn opposition from Republican Senators Marco Rubio and John McCain, because in his 41 years at Exxon Mobil he has forged close relations with the Russian leadership and the Russian State Oil Company. Coupled with the Russian hacking scandal, this nomination is under heavy scrutiny.

Part of the confirmation process requires background checks, but only three Senate committees have the authority to require nominees to release their tax returns. Each committee can amend its rules to require this, something that most states require of their officeholders, but there is no movement toward that in the Senate. In fact, the refusal of the new president to release his financial and full medical records during the campaign upended 40 years of tradition and set an example that many in his administration may follow unless compelled to do otherwise. Unless there is full disclosure of business interests and connections, it will be impossible to know if the individual actions of the administration are truly in the public interest or whether actions by foreign entities are seeking to “curry favor.” For example, the embassy of Kuwait has held an event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown in the past, but suddenly cancelled this year’s contract and moved the event to the Trump Washington Hotel. Were they pressured or did they see an advantage in this?

By the time you read this article, some or all of the cabinet nominees may have been confirmed and left with the foxes guarding the henhouse. What are we to do? Expose and oppose. Be vigilant about new laws and rule changes coming from Washington, which I will follow and pass along, and monitor their effect at the local level, where you can have an impact in mitigating or overturning such changes. There is a lot of advocacy experience in the Section and the NCJW Washington office is always available for advice and help. We are only on a detour, one full of roadblocks as we continue our work for women and children, social justice and the rights and freedoms of all.

Lesley Frost


Surrounded by powerful silhouettes depicting human trafficking victims and tables bursting with beautiful fair trade boutique items, we shopped ’til we dropped and had lots of fun.

Although it was a fun event, the Fair, held at County College of Morris in Randolph, conveyed a strong message. One silhouette depicted a human trafficking victim bound in ropes with the notice “not for sale.” Another showed the insides of a human body and explained that some people are trafficked to harvest their organs for transplant. The silhouette that attendees voted “Fair Favorite” was covered with broken glass, depicting the true story of a victim trying to put her life back together.

Our guest speaker, rabbinic intern Sarah Barasch-Hagans discussed how important it is in Jewish tradition to free the slave and raise up the poor and the downtrodden.

Sarah told us that most cacao used in making chocolate comes from Africa, and almost all of it is grown by people trapped in slavery. Many of them are children, even as young as five years old. Therefore most Fair Trade chocolate is sourced from Central and South America, where the cacao is grown by small farms with independent farmers who work under safe working conditions and earn a fair wage for their labors.

Sarah also discussed how the Fair Food movement began among tomato workers in Florida twenty years ago. The workers initiated a protest against wages well below minimum wage; unsafe working conditions in fields without shade, water, or toilet facilities; sexual harassment; and horrible living conditions. Aided by faith-based groups, especially Sarah’s organization, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (in south Florida) was born. In a few short years the Coalition was able to obtain the support of almost all fast food chains (with the exception of Wendy’s) and Walmart to only purchase tomatoes that were certified Fair Food. The Immokalee coalition is continuing to pressure Wendy’s to sign on to the agreement, and is now expanding their efforts beyond tomatoes to include strawberries and peppers.

Our Section is supporting the Fair Food movement by offering Fair Trade chocolate and coffee for sale. Please contact Susan Neigher (sneigher@hotmail.com) if you would like to purchase these kosher parve products.