Yeshivos will not cease their predominance on Torah study nor modify their schedule to comply with new guidelines that seek to impose a draconian curriculum of secular studies on the system that founded the concept of public education 2,500 years ago, yeshivah advocacy groups informed the New York state education commissioner.
The sharply written letter, sent by several groups including Agudath Israel of America and PEARLS, is dated Dec. 6, about two weeks after the guidelines were published. It demands that yeshivos devote many hours a day to the study of math, science, history, language arts and other subjects, although the greatest anger in the community has been directed at the mandate that grades 5 through 8 have a minimum of seven hours a day of secular studies.
“We met with over 200 yeshivas since the guidelines were published,” the letter, which Hamodia did not see but which was read out by an official, stated to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. “We would like to advise you that there is an overwhelming consensus that the guidelines as written are unenforceable and unacceptable since they would force yeshivas to choose between compliance and continuing their emphasis on Torah studies and imparting Torah values.”
“Please be advised,” the memo adds, “that the yeshivas will not be changing their emphasis on Torah studies and will not be altering their schedules to fulfill the guidelines mandated.”
The guidelines also call for a review by the hundreds of cities and school boards across the state to investigate its private schools to see whether they are “substantially equivalent” to a public-school education. The review must be completed within three years.
If a school fails a review, Elia warned in a conference call two weeks ago, it will lose all public funds and its students will be notified that they will be considered truant if they continue studying there.
The state is scheduled to begin training local school authorities from across the state on how to inspect private schools on compliance. The first seminar is on Thursday, and Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudah’s executive vice president, said that “the nonpublic school community will be represented” as observers.
The letter from the yeshivah groups was sent a day after the Catholic school system informed Elia, the education commissioner, that it will boycott the review and bar inspectors from its approximately 500 schools.
James Cultrara, executive secretary of the state Council of Catholic School Superintendents, said that he takes issue with a private school being inspected by a competing system.
“The parents who choose our schools can have great confidence in the academic rigor of our schools,” Cultrara said. “We simply cannot accept a competing school having authority over whether our schools can operate.”
The Catholics also criticized the review process, in which the local school board inspects the school and then must vote on a recommendation at a public hearing. Although the final say on a school’s status rests with the state education chancellor, Cultrara said, “A review by local public school officials and a vote at a public meeting … practically guarantees inconsistency and subjectivity.”
Cultrara added that “our Council will be working with legislators to seek an amendment to the law so as to vest this responsibility [to inspect private schools] solely with the State Education Department.”
The guidelines have elicited a strong reaction within the Orthodox Jewish community, with many seeing it as an attack on the yeshivah system itself.
Aron Wieder, a Rockland County legislator and an outspoken defender of yeshivos, tweeted his support for the Catholics’ action.
“I applaud the State Council of Catholic School Superintendents for their unwavering stand to not allow the @NYSEDNews access to their schools and the fact that they will not submit to the draconian guidelines issued by @MaryEllenElia,” Wieder posted.
A petition started two weeks ago on change.org demands that the state allow the yeshivos the independence it has had for decades.
“Commissioner Elia has threatened yeshiva parents with sanctions if we do not bend to her will,” the petition, began by Rabbi Yosef Churva, declared. “…Tell Commissioner Elia that yeshiva parents will not be manipulated. Tell Commissioner Elia that yeshiva parents will not back down.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the petition was several hundred signatures away from its goal of 50,000.
The reasons signers gave for their joining the petition were varied, ranging from freedom of religion to the quality of a yeshivah education. Dozens of signers drew upon their yeshivah education as the thing that prepared them for their professional life.
“As a public-school teacher,” wrote Robyn Engelson of Flushing as the reason for her signing, “even I think this is unfair. Studies show Yeshiva students do far better on state tests and are successful business men and professional in all fields. … Talmud has mathematics, Jewish law teaches logic skills which is part of new generation curriculum. Leave Yeshiva[s] alone.”
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