An anti-yeshivah group filed a federal lawsuit Monday against top New York State officials, targeting a recently-passed law that requires the education department to take into account the real-world quality of education yeshivos provide when evaluating their compliance with state law.
The law, sponsored by state Sen. Simcha Felder and signed into law along with the state budget in April, does not specifically mention yeshivos but instructs the state to consider the myriad lessons gleaned from other studies such as Gemara — not just the actual hours spent on secular studies — when reviewing nonpublic schools with long days.
Yaffed, an organization consisting of several individuals who studied in Boro Park yeshivos and have since left the community, filed a lawsuit in Brooklyn federal court. It is represented pro bono by Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, a high-end legal firm based in Manhattan.
Eric Huang, a partner at the firm, claimed at a press conference in his office on Monday that “if the law is allowed to stand it will stand in the way of progress.”
The crux of the suit asserts that the law is discriminatory since it benefits Jewish nonpublic schools but not other private schools. It alleges that the state “created a carve-out to the statutory requirement of substantial equivalent instruction in non-public schools that applies to and is intended to benefit only certain ultra-Orthodox nonpublic schools.”
Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, a grassroots group that advocates on behalf of yeshivos known by its acronym, PEARLS, said that it is not a party to the lawsuit but issued a statement saying the lawsuit “recycles many false claims about yeshivas that were previously made” on social media which were “no more true or valid now that they are contained in numbered paragraphs.”
The law Yaffed is seeking to stop clarified for the first time the constitutionally ambiguous “substantial equivalency” standard that nonpublic schools are held to. The yardstick, on the books since 1929, has never been fully explained and has therefore rarely, if ever, been enforced.
Felder’s bill laid out a core curriculum of four subjects yeshivah students must be taught to satisfy the requirement — English, math, science and history. According to legal experts consulted by those involved in fashioning it, it remains firmly within the “sound, basic education” mandated by the state constitution and a host of court rulings.
Yaffed is demanding that a more stringent standard be applied — that nonpublic schools instruct the same subjects as their public counterparts. This would mean teaching 11 subjects for elementary grades, while high schools would have to teach 15 subjects.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, told Hamodia that Sen. Felder’s law should have led to Yaffed declaring victory and moving on. He noted that the group’s mission statement claims “respect for the primacy of Judaic studies and the unique cultural and religious values of the ultra-Orthodox community.”
The fact that they are filing a lawsuit, Rabbi Zwiebel said, “gives the lie” to its stated mission.
“If that were truly Yaffed’s objective, as opposed to a broader agenda of radically redesigning the yeshivah system and changing the face of Chassidic Jewry,” he said, “it would enthusiastically embrace the ‘Felder Amendment,’ which requires all yeshivah students to be taught the four core subject areas of English language arts, math, science and history through elementary school, and receive a ‘sound basic education’ in high school. Instead, without even giving the new law a chance to be implemented, Yaffed has gone to federal court in an effort to prevent the law from ever getting off the ground.
“For an organization that contends that little or no secular learning is taking place in the Chassidic yeshivah community, and that it is pledged to the improvement of yeshivah secular education,” Rabbi Zwiebel added, “the new law’s promulgation of binding standards should be seen as a meaningful positive step worthy of celebration, not litigation.”
The suit names as defendants Gov. Andrew Cuomo, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa. It was assigned to Judge I. Leo Glasser, a 94-year-old federal justice in the Brooklyn court system.
Lawsuits against the state are traditionally defended by the attorney general. The acting attorney general is Barbara Underwood, although she is not running for election this fall. The frontrunner in November is Letitia James, the current New York City public advocate.
Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, said that the governor’s office would “respond accordingly” to the lawsuit.
“Earlier this year in the budget, the legislature passed a law that sought to balance the unique needs of yeshivas with the high educational standards we require for every New York student, and we remain committed to achieving that balance,” Azzopardi said.
PEARLS noted that Yaffed is supported only by its own self-styled report, “which was itself based solely on a small group of self-selected Yaffed Facebook friends. And even among that group, there are literally zero complainants about the vast majority of yeshivas Yaffed continues to mischaracterize.
“The City’s Department of Education and the State Education Department are familiar with the curriculum in our schools,” PEARLS said. “We are confident that those who have made education their lifework will not be swayed by the inaccurate picture today’s lawsuit portrays. Ultimately, parents must have the right to choose how their children are educated.”
Rabbi Zwiebel said that from a legal standpoint, Yaffed faces an uphill battle.
“I think the court will reject Yaffed’s challenge,” he said. “There are several jurisdictional bases the court might rely on, but most fundamentally the court should uphold a sincere legislative effort to address the unique educational circumstances of yeshivah education. I believe the court will conclude that a special law is appropriate for nonpublic schools like yeshivos that have a lengthy school day with an academically rigorous program that extends far beyond the programs of neighboring public schools.
“Further,” he said, “the court will recognize that the new law is a laudable and constitutionally appropriate effort to accommodate the First Amendment right of parents to provide their children with an intensive Jewish studies program, while at the same time requiring an education that will enable those same children to function as productive members of society.”