Don’t let ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas get away with this: A judge must rule for the state as it seeks to ensure basic educational equivalence in non-public schools
As early as Friday, a judge may decide whether or not the New York State Education Department can proceed to enforce new guidelines for religious and private schools. These guidelines are designed to make sure that private schools are meeting the legal requirement to provide an education that’s “substantially equivalent” to public schools. Sounds reasonable, right? Not to the unholy trinity of yeshivas, Catholic schools and inexplicably some elite private schools, like Brearley and Packer Collegiate, which are suing to prevent any oversight whatsoever.
Until recently, New York State did not enforce its own education standards. And while many private and Catholic schools pride themselves on providing a high quality education that’s even superior to public schools, the consequences have been devastating for students in Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox yeshivas.
In 2015, our group, Young Advocates for Fair Education (Yaffed), filed a complaint with New York City alleging educational neglect in hundreds of Hasidic yeshivas. That neglect has deprived approximately thousands of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic children of a basic education. In our experience, on average a Hasidic boy receives just 90 minutes of secular instruction in elementary and middle school and no secular instruction at all in high school. The results are damning. The Hasidic neighborhoods in New York State are among the poorest in the state and even the country.
The city has been pathetically slow to act, and so the state stepped up to revise its guidelines in an attempt to clarify them for local authorities tasked with determining and enforcing the substantial equivalency standard. On Nov. 20, 2018, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia released the revised guidelines, which triggered vitriolic opposition from Hasidic yeshivas and their supporters.
The guidelines do not differ significantly from previous versions. They require the teaching of the basics, such as English, math, science and social studies.
Catholic and other non-public schools would easily pass any substantial equivalency test, but instead they’ve rallied to the defense of the ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas, which make no secret of the fact that they haven’t and won’t provide their students with a full secular education.
It’s mind-boggling, because most of the non-Yeshiva schools would barely face any scrutiny at all. Registered high schools go through a more rigorous review by the state in order to be eligible for Regents diplomas, so they would be exempt from an additional substantial equivalency review. Accredited schools, including the majority of private schools, would be subject to only a cursory review, as the district’s substantial equivalency review will take the accreditation determination into consideration. But some Yeshivas, the worst offenders no less, are fighting to remain completely independent from government scrutiny, even as they receive millions in federal, state and local subsidies. Some Hasidic Yeshivas’ budgets are covered two-thirds by government funding, and only one third from tuition.
Even a full review can hardly be considered intrusive. Superintendents or their designees must visit all non-public schools once within the next two to three years and once every five years thereafter. As part of that visit, local officials would look at the instruction being done in the schools and would also collect documentation that demonstrates adherence to the guidelines.
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