Nuftali Moster founded Young Advocates for Fair Education, the group that sued the city’s Department of Education in a push for more secular instruction in yeshivas. Credit: Bryan Thomas for The New York Times
In parts of New York City, there are students who can barely read and write in English and have not been taught that dinosaurs once roamed Earth or that the Civil War occurred.
Some of them are in their last year of high school.
That is the claim made by a group of graduates from ultra-Orthodox Jewish private schools called yeshivas, and they say that startling situation has been commonplace for decades.
Over three years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration opened an investigation into a lack of secular education at yeshivas that serve about 57,000 students in the city, but the probe essentially stalled almost as soon as it began. The reason, advocates say, is the city’s politicians, including the mayor, are fearful of angering the Orthodox Jewish community that represents a crucial voting bloc in major elections.
Then the state stepped in with the most significant action yet in the probe. MaryEllen Elia, the state education commissioner, released updated ruleson Nov. 20 dictating how nonpublic schools like yeshivas are regulated and what students in those schools should learn, with consequences for schools that do not comply.
The guidance could force yeshivas to change how they operate and what they teach. It will also hold Mr. de Blasio’s feet to the fire, as his administration is forced to ramp up its investigation into the schools.
“There’s no time to waste,” said Naftuli Moster, the founder of Young Advocates for Fair Education, which pushes for more secular instruction in yeshivas. “New York City has already been dragging its feet for three years.”
The city’s yeshiva probe began in 2015, after Mr. Moster’s group filed a complaint claiming that scores of students — boys, in particular — graduate from ultra-Orthodox yeshivas unprepared for work or higher education, with little exposure to nonreligious classes like science and history. Instead, some yeshiva graduates say, students spend most school days studying Jewish texts. Younger boys sometimes attend about 90 minutes of nonreligious classes at the end of the day, a city report found.
A coalition of prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis and community members have accused critics of yeshivas of attacking religious freedoms.
“This is a smear campaign against our community and what it stands for,” said David Niederman, a rabbi and the president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg. “If some people are not happy with what they are taught, it is up to them to take action.”
Avi Schick, a lawyer for Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, a group formed after the 2015 investigation was opened, said, “The intrusive set of requirements imposed by the state demolishes the wall between church and state that politicians have hid behind for decades.”
This past summer, the organization, known as Pearls, handed out 10,000 posters and bumper stickers emblazoned with the hashtag #ProtectYeshivas to parents of children in Orthodox Jewish schools.
The state’s guidance places the burden of investigating the schools on Mr. de Blasio’s administration.
City officials are now required to visit all nonpublic schools by the end of 2021 — which will coincide with the end of Mr. de Blasio’s second term — and visit each school every five years after that. If officials find that the schools are not providing an education that is “substantially equivalent” to what public schools offer, the city can give schools more time and resources to add secular teaching. If that does not work, the city can withhold some funding it provides private schools.
In an interview, the city schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, said that he had requested training for Department of Education employees who will visit the schools, and that he would prioritize visits to a half-dozen yeshivas he claimed have barred city officials from entry. After that, he plans to send staffers to several dozen other yeshivas that were listed on the 2015 complaint as having insufficient secular education.
This is going to be a robust kind of a visit, and a robust looking into all the nonpublic schools,” Mr. Carranza said. “The mayor has made it really clear from Day 1 for me that he wants us to move aggressively and get this taken care of.”
Though complaints about academics have focused on New York City’s yeshivas, the guidance applies to all nonpublic schools in the state, which has raised alarm bells for other groups.
“We remain gravely concerned over the process, which will likely lend itself to an inconsistent and subjective review of many schools,” Jim Cultrara, the director for education at the New York State Catholic Conference, said in an interview.
The mayor’s handling of the yeshiva investigation will now be monitored not only by the state, but also by those concerned about Mr. de Blasio’s recent dismissal of Mark G. Peters, the former Department of Investigations chief.
After he was fired, Mr. Peters confirmed that his department was looking into whether City Hall interfered with the city Education Department’s inquiry into yeshivas in an effort to maintain ties with the Orthodox community. The issue has since been elevated, and there is a question of whether the mayor sought to tamp down probes into his own administration.
Mr. de Blasio’s pick to replace Mr. Peters, Margaret M. Garnett, was already quizzed at a recent City Council hearing about whether she will continue the probe into City Hall’s handling of the yeshiva investigation. She said in an interview with The Times that she would not “tolerate or accept interference” in any queries involving the mayor.
Advocates for more secular education in yeshivas found reason to celebrate last month, when Democrats seized a commanding majority in the New York State Senate.
The Senate flip robbed Senator Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, of an enviable swing vote that he used last year to add protections for yeshivas in the 11th hour of state budget negotiations. Young Advocates for Fair Education, Mr. Moster’s group, has sued the state over the so-called Felder amendment, calling it unconstitutional.
Mr. Felder, who represents Orthodox enclaves of Brooklyn, declined to comment.
Still, enormous obstacles remain for those who want the city to shine a spotlight on yeshivas.
Few if any politicians in Albany or downstate are willing to anger the Orthodox political establishment. Urgent problems in the city’s 1,800 public schools — including ballooning student homelessness and entrenched racial segregation — will take precedence over issues in religious schools that the city does not run.
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