November 29, 2022 •
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By Rabbi Emeritus Clifford M. Kulwin, Star Ledger, Guest Columnist

The college admissions scandal rolls merrily along. Last week, California mom Karen Littlefair pleaded guilty to having paid $9,000 to a company that took an online Georgetown University class for her son. The company was controlled by Rick Singer, the college counselor at the center of the scandal.

Nine thousand dollars is a lot of money, but Ms. Littlefair seems like a piker compared to actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli, accused of paying $500,000 to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California. When the scandal broke last March, there was a lot of self-righteous reveling among the millions of us parents who played by the rules as we struggled to help our children get into and pay for college.

But something’s been bothering me, and Ms. Littlefair helped me figure out what it is. An “extra” half a million dollars is too mind-boggling a sum for me to imagine. However, 1.8% of that — $9,000 — is an amount I can begin to relate to.

Which made me wonder if people like me are part of the problem. When my kids were in school we absolutely ponied up when it was clear that private tutors would help. Maybe, albeit on a smaller scale, this is not so different from what Lori Loughlin or Karen Littlefair did. Unlike Littlefair and (allegedly) Loughlin, I did not break the law, but I did use the financial resources I have, that many people don’t have, to give my kids a leg up. What I did was legal, but was it fair?

Larry Feinsod says yes. He’s the executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association and has been a teacher, a district superintendent, and executive superintendent of a county. He recalls a custodian in one district he served, Mr. C., who painted houses evenings and weekends specifically to provide tutors and other academic resources for his children. He wanted them to have every possible advantage.

“I admired him,” Dr. Feinsod told me,” both because of his commitment to his children and his sense of personal responsibility. I thought of him when I read about what some of these people in the college admissions scandal did, and my blood boiled. Look what he did on his own, without cheating. But I realize that not everyone can do what Mr. C. did. We need to make provisions for those whose mother or father cannot get an additional job, who are disabled or must be a caregiver for a family member.”

My fellow Montclair resident Marcia Marley agrees. She’s the founder of Succeed2gether, which provides free tutoring and an array of other educational resources to students from families in need.

My concern was misplaced, or at least not the point, she told me, explaining that “the goal is to level the playing field. We’ll never completely eliminate inequality. But we can make progress toward equal opportunity.”

Carlos Lejnieks, who heads Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Union and Hudson Counties, went further: “Parents instinctively want to support their children. It’s utterly natural. As long as it’s within reason, we shouldn’t feel guilty. What parent doesn’t want to buy their son or daughter a bicycle or a book, take them to another country or send them to camp. Or, if the child needs help in school, hire a tutor.

“After a typical day spent working with children who’ve been dealt a lousy hand, here’s the question I’d like an answer to: what can we do to cut off at least some inequities at the root.?”

He’s right. That is the really important question.

Year after year, Millburn and Livingston top the list of Essex County school districts with best student outcomes. Newark and Irvington are generally among the most challenged districts. It is of course no coincidence that the gap is also reflective of the towns’ average per capital income. So why do we fund our schools so preponderantly from property taxes, which only encourages me to care about my kids and ignore your kids?

Thank goodness for Succeed2gather, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the many other wonderful agencies that help bridge that gap, and kudos to the many excellent private tutors like those who helped my kids. But if the need for outside support is so great that it has generated a cottage industry for both the profit and non-profit world, perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong with our approach to education. Do we pay our teachers enough? Are they given sufficient training and support and supervision? Do our schools have all the right human and material resources to give our kids the education they need?

Make no mistake. Those caught in the college admissions scandal deserve the punishment they get. I feel sorry for her son but I’m not crying for Ms. Littlefair or any of the others. There will always be miscreants, scheming to game any system.

And yes, schadenfreude is fun, but as Dr. Feinsod, Ms. Marley and Mrs. Lejnieks made sure I understood, it’s a distraction. Making education great and accessible for every kid must always be our focus.

Clifford Kulwin is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham, Livingston

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