Jewish Education in Crisis – Groups Prepare to Defend Yeshivos’ Independence as NY Revises Guidelines

ALBANY -

An alliance of yeshivah advocacy groups criticized updated New York State Education Department guidelines as woefully insufficient and reflective of the sloppy way SED rolled them out, as they prepared to do battle on four separate fronts against the new mandates for nonpublic schools.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, meanwhile, sought to quell the growing outrage among the nonpublic community by offering “flexibility” and withdrawing from her previously announced position that the guidelines were final, according to an official who spoke to her in recent days.

“‘We believe that tomorrow has to be better than today’ — these were her words,” the official said, referring to conversations with one of Elia’s deputy commissioners.

The gulf between the two sides, however, remains too yawning for optimism, advocates for yeshivos told Hamodia.

“You get the sense,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, “that — maybe, maybe — all the outcry from the community has made a little bit of an impression, you get the sense that they noticed it. That’s helpful. But to say that it’s shifted to a mode of optimism doesn’t describe my feelings.”

The guidelines, which had been widely condemned when released a month ago, received their first revision on Friday. Originally, nearly eight hours and 40 minutes of secular studies were required on each of the four days of the average yeshivah’s six-day school week on which secular studies are taught. On Friday the agency clarified that the mandate is meant to be spread over two years, not one.

The original guidelines stated that students in the four years of grades five through eight needed to be taught six hours a week of each of four subjects — math, science, language arts and history, as well as shorter periods for career, health and physical education. This total of about 35 hours would have dramatically transformed the yeshivah day from one that is primarily focused on limudei kodesh to one with virtually no time for Gemara and Chumash.

The department backtracked completely from its guidance for students in grades five and six. While originally saying they would need the same hours as the upper classes, under the revised standard they are included in the mandate for grades one through four. While the older grades have mandated hours for study, the younger grades contain no such directive, merely requiring that students “receive instruction that is designed to facilitate their attainment of the State elementary learning standards.”

For grades seven and eight, yeshivah advocates say, aside for not addressing the main point of concern, even four hours and 20 minutes of secular studies a day is significantly more than every mainstream yeshivah currently devotes to those subjects. It is only marginally less than the time allotted in public schools, which has a bit over five hours of study a day.

Elia, the commissioner, delivered a tough-sounding speech to the first training session for local school boards on Thursday, in which they were guided in how to inspect private schools for compliance.

Avi Greenstein, a member of the executive committee for Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, a yeshivah advocacy group known as PEARLS, attended the session, along with other PEARLS and Agudah members.

“It was clear that the commissioner views herself as having the full authority to impose this curriculum on schools, and schools that are not in compliance will be shut down,” said Rabbi Greenstein, who is also the CEO of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council. “She spoke about the process of being shut down. There will be a process of 30 to 45 days from when they are deemed to be noncompliant.”

Also worrying to yeshivah advocates was a new item on the checklist that inspectors must fill out when visiting yeshivos that did not appear on the original toolkit distributed last month.

Inspectors, Elia said in a PowerPoint presentation, must also look at specific outcomes on a host of subjects.

So elementary-age students, for example, must be able to “make sense of [mathematical] problems and persevere in solving them, reason abstractly and quantitatively, construct viable arguments and critique reasoning of others, model with mathematics.” High-schoolers must be able to “use numbers and quantity, Algebra, fractions, modeling, geometry, statistics and probability.”

Similar standards are in place for subjects including reading, writing, science and social studies, as well as history of the United States, the world and New York, “geography, economics, civics, citizenship, and government.”

“This is a very big development that should worry everyone,” Rabbi Greenstein said. “If a commissioner can impose an outcome on a yeshivah for a specific topic — regardless of what you think about that topic — then what stops the commissioner in the future from imposing something that you would not be willing to have in your school, that would be absolutely unacceptable to you?”

“Yeshivos,” he said, “are never going to be safe.”

In an “open letter to the yeshivah community” released Wednesday afternoon, three prominent Roshei Yeshivah decried the straw-man argument put forth by some that yeshivos should now be happy that the eight-hour mandate was eased.

Harav Elya Brudny of Yeshivas Mir, Harav Yaakov Bender of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, and Harav Yisroel Reisman of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath thanked people who protested the interference into what they described as “this battle for the heart and soul of our yeshivos.”

The Roshei Yeshivah said that they are “delighted” that the education department backed off its demand for seven hours a day of secular studies. But the fight is much bigger than that single victory.

“We want to impress upon you that this is all part of a bigger picture. What is at stake is the autonomy of our yeshivos,” they wrote in the message, which appeared under the Torah Umesorah letterhead. “Are decisions about yeshivah curriculum, schedule, educational emphasis and hiring to remain in the hands of the Menahalim, Roshei Yeshivah and Vaad Hachinuch, or will they be dictated by the State Education Department and local school districts? This is the issue.”

PEARLS said in a statement that the “concession” highlighted the flaws in the process by formulating the guidelines without allowing input from yeshivos.

“A more robust process surely would have spared SED (State Education Department) the embarrassment of having to walk back requirements that it supposedly spent two years developing,” PEARLS asserted. “It is no surprise that a deeply flawed process produced deeply flawed guidelines.”

The group added that “instead of walking back the guidelines piece by piece, we call upon the State Education Department to engage in a real collaborative effort with stakeholders that will lead to guidelines that work for all.”

Rabbi Zwiebel said that while “the prominent change that they made is helpful, it by no means addresses the hours problem of seventh and eighth graders. I’m not ready to say that we’ve turned a corner over here. I remain concerned that we may have to go to court to resolve some of the issues.”

One outspoken defender of the yeshivos questioned the arbitrary process in which the state first demanded more than eight hours and then went down to four and a half.

Aron Wieder, a Rockland County legislator, called the backtracking “puzzling.”

“Are they taking these hours out of a magician’s hat?” Wieder asked. “The lopsided, bungled rollout of the guidelines by the New York State Education Department is further proof that State Ed is simply kowtowing to those who seek to destroy the Orthodox Jewish community.”

Another primary concern is that the state handed off review of the yeshivos to the hundreds of local school boards across the state. While it kept a final decision in its hands, the education department’s granting permission for local authorities to inspect yeshivos — along with a mandate to hold hearings on it that will be open to the public — would lead to political posturing and increased anti-Semitism.

The Torah community are not the only ones protesting; a letter released two weeks ago by the Council of Catholic School Superintendents rejected having a private school be inspected by a competing system. The Council said it will boycott the review process and bar inspectors from its approximately 500 schools.

A petition on change.org begun by Rabbi Yosef Churba a month ago reached its goal of 50,000 signatures last Tuesday and extended it to 75,000. As of Tuesday evening it had more than 58,200 signatories.

In addition to the petition, Agudah requested that members of the community write to the state’s political leaders, “registering our protest about this gross overreach of government power.”

Agudah has created a page that will automatically send an email to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and leaders of the legislature at yeshivosbychoice.org/action. A chyron above the page showed that nearly 40,000 emails have been sent in the six days since its creation.

One surprising pressure point was added on Thursday, when a majority of the progressive New York City Council signed a letter calling out the State Education Department’s “unprecedented incursion into private schools’ curricula.”

The letter, which was written by Councilman Chaim Deutsch and cosigned by 28 members of the 51-member body, was also supported by Agudah. the Islamic School Association, the Catholic Community Relations Council and the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools.

The memo worried that the new standards “could severely disrupt religious Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish private schools.”

“Private, religious schools provide a much-utilized service to New Yorkers of faith who aim to provide their children with both a secular and a religious education,” they wrote. “These parents have the legal right to choose private schools for their children, and they often pay hefty tuition rates to ensure that their child is receiving the best possible standard of education. It is our perspective that the guidelines released by your Department overstep into attempting to have private schools become curricular clones of the public schools.”

Advocates are mulling their next steps, which include continuing their negotiations with Elia and her department, talks with elected officials, galvanizing the community and contemplating a lawsuit.

“I think the powers that be in Albany are very well aware now of how much broad support for the yeshivah community there is across the state,” Rabbi Zwiebel said. “The petition drive and the email generator and some of the articles that have appeared in the media have, I think, sensitized lots of people to how important this issue is.”