State guidelines designed to help equalize the quality of education at public and private schools have drawn a mixture of support and ire from local activists, yeshiva administrators and parents.
New York State began mandating that children from ages 6 to 16 receive a formal education with the passing of the Compulsory Education Law in 1895. The law contained a provision that private schools must give their students an education that is at least “substantially equal” to the quality of the public school district in which that private school resides. Until recently, the state has never set down a definitive answer as to what constitutes a “substantially equal education,” but the New York State Department of Education (DoE) released a set of guidelines in November 2018 to expand upon the meaning of the law.
Among other provisions, the DoE’s guidelines specify that private schools must teach subjects like math and science for a certain amount of time a day, and offer English-language learning services to students who don’t speak English fluently.
“Nonpublic schools are an important part of the educational landscape in New York State,” DoE Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a press release. “With the regulations, we will ensure that all students, no matter which school they attend, have the benefit of receiving the education state law says they must have.”
These revised guidelines come on the heels of years of controversy over a perceived lack of quality secular education in some of the state’s religious schools. Advocates of reform say students at some of the state’s more strictly religious schools, hasidic yeshivas in particular, receive little nonreligious instruction, a consequence of an overly-strict interpretation of a passage of scripture that directs readers to “study the Torah day and night.”
“This is a serious crisis affecting the entire state,” Naftuli Moster, founder of Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), a nonprofit campaigning for increased secular education in yeshivas, said. “Not only is this a moral issue, where tens of thousands of children are being truly deprived and handicapped for life, but it directly affects other New Yorkers when these schools receive government aid because of their failure.”
Moster, himself an alum of a Hasidic yeshiva, has personal experience with the precipitous knowledge gap attending a school that spurns secular education can cause.
“I was about 20 years old when I first thought of going to college,” he said. “It became clear that I didn’t know the first thing about what it entailed. I needed to write an essay and pass an entrance exam, and I couldn’t do either. I couldn’t do even basic math and I didn’t know how to write an essay, or even what the word ‘essay’ meant.”
While advocates like Moster view the updated guidelines as the catalyst of much-needed reform, several yeshiva administrators, including Rabbi Gary Menchel of Yeshiva Har Torah, are wary of what they see as a decrease in their freedom to govern themselves.
“When things first came out I didn’t really pay much attention because we exceed those expectations,” Menchel, Head of School for the Jamaica, Queens-based orthodox yeshiva that serves about 300 children from Great Neck, said. “Then when I heard they were talking about being involved with micromanaging, that begins to feel intrusive and excessive. That’s where I get concerned.”
Menchel pointed out Yeshiva Har Torah is an independently accredited education institution with a strong track record of student achievement, and measures up well against any metric of judgment.
“Our view is that everything we study supports our students being able to be good citizens and good human beings and good Jews,” he said. “We don’t isolate our Torah study, we infuse the values of our Jewish studies into everything we do, and we also take our academic programs very, very seriously.”
Yeshiva Har Torah has remained on the sidelines of the debate, avoiding advocacy or lobbying against state regulations, but other yeshivas and organizations like Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools (PEARLS) have written letters to Albany in vehement opposition of the DoE’s guidelines.
While concerns and protests over a perceived loss of self determination have been prevalent within orthodox education circles, Moster feels some of the worry about state interference has been overstated.
“When we talk about the issue, we highlight that the problem is mainly about Hasidic boys’ schools,” he said. “Ultra orthodox schools that are not Hasidic tend to provide a much better education. None of the private, elite schools really have a concern here. At the very most we’re talking about a minor inconvenience of having to show around a public school official and perhaps having to prepare some documents.”
The burden of enforcing these requirements would fall on nearby school districts, who would be tasked with regularly checking in on private schools within their borders to ensure they follow the state’s guidelines. As it currently stands, the district’s superintendent would be responsible for performing a review of the private schools in their area by the end of the 2020-21 school year at the latest, and then repeat the process in five-year cycles. For local religious schools, that task of oversight would fall on Great Neck Public Schools and superintendent Teresa Prendergast, who was unable to respond to a request for comment prior to publication.
The final review of these proposed guidelines is expected to come before the state’s Board of Regents for approval sometime in the fall. Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa voiced her support for the guidelines in a press release earlier this year.
“Every child in New York State is entitled to a high-quality education,” Rosa said. “By proposing these regulations, we are moving through the public process to ensure that students attending nonpublic schools receive substantially equivalent instruction.