Rabbanim Say NYS Private School Regulations ‘Are Not Equitable,’ Would Only Affect Yeshivas
By Reuvain Borchardt
NEW YORK – New York State’s newly proposed regulations for private school education “are not equitable” in that their practical effect would only be felt on yeshivos, three heads of the Torah Umesorah organization who are also leaders of prominent New York City yeshivos argue in a letter to Education Commissioner Betty Rosa.
“We recognize that the proposed regulations create multiple pathways to substantial equivalency, including registration and accreditation,” says the March 22 letter, signed by Rav Elya Brudny, Rav Yaakov Bender and Rav Yisroel Reisman, Roshei Yeshivah of Mir, Darchei Torah and Torah Vodaath, respectively. “While we commend the idea of multiple pathways, these regulations are not equitable. We say this as Deans at three institutions whose high schools are registered and whose schools would therefore be deemed substantially equivalent.”
New York State law has, for more than a century, required that private schools provide an education “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools, but the law never delineated how “substantial equivalency” is determined.
Under the newly proposed regulations released March 10, private schools may satisfy the substantial-equivalency requirement by either registering as having a Regents program; being accredited by a government-approved accrediting body; or being assessed and deemed compliant by the local school authority (LSA), which is the schools chancellor in New York City and the local school board elsewhere.
If a yeshiva’s high school is registered as a school that offers Regents exams, that entire school, including its elementary grades, is deemed substantially equivalent. A school that is elementary-only (as are many yeshivos outside Brooklyn) may not use this option.
While accreditation would therefore be the preferred option for many yeshivos, there are virtually no accrediting bodies that have dealt with the yeshiva community. Creating a new accrediting entity familiar with the yeshiva system would be impractical if the guidelines take effect, as planned, by the 2024-2025 school year.
A previous iteration of the regulations, which would have required that all schools be subject to the LSA review, was withdrawn after they generated well over 100,000 negative comments, mostly from yeshiva parents and graduates.
While yeshiva advocates consider the newly proposed regulations to be slightly less intrusive than the previous proposal in that they offer registration or accreditation as alternatives to LSA review, many yeshivos — and no non-Jewish schools — would be subject to LSA review under the new guidelines, the letter argues.
“For the many K-8 yeshivos, where registration is not an option, there is no clearly identified path to avoid a local school board review,” the letter states. “That is because yeshivos are not currently accredited by an agency approved by the State Education Department. Yet it appears that all of the non- Jewish private schools in New York City and its suburban counties — which are home to a majority of New York’s 450 [yeshivos] and 165,000 students — will be able to avoid local school board reviews. The result will be that local school board reviews will be conducted almost exclusively at New York yeshivos.”
The rabbanim also say the new regulations are faulty in that they do not consider the uniqueness of the yeshiva curriculum.
“Even more concerning is the omission from the regulations of any acknowledgment of the Jewish Studies classes that are the foundation of the curriculum taught for the majority of the yeshiva school day,” the letter says. “In addition to the religious value of those studies – which focus on the Bible and its commentators, the Talmud, Mishna and Jewish history, values and ideals – they are also full of intellectual and academic value. Ignoring these studies when evaluating a yeshiva’s education is contrary to both the First Amendment and sound educational policy.”
Furthermore, the letter objects to the subjects that would be considered in an LSA review.
“At the same time that our Jewish Studies are ignored, the proposed regulations focus on whether Yeshivos will teach numerous subjects that can at best be characterized as peripheral,” such as drug and alcohol abuse, the worthy use of leisure time and the Irish Potato Famine.
“This list goes way beyond the core educational curriculum of English, Math, Social Studies and Science,” write the Rabbanim. “Our concern is that a rigid requirement to provide instruction in those topics will necessarily take time away from the Jewish Studies that are why parents choose yeshiva education for their children and that are central to our educational emphasis.
“The attention given to these topics in the regulations is even more misplaced given that registered and accredited schools will not be subject to local school board reviews, even though Regents examinations and accreditation agencies do not focus on them. Only yeshivos will be judged by whether their curriculum sufficiently covers the Irish Potato Famine, New York State constitution and the worthy use of leisure time.”
The Rabbanim also argue that the proposed regulations “have a misplaced emphasis on a long list of curricular inputs while entirely ignoring the outcomes that yeshivos have achieved,” saying that “our yeshiva graduates have a record of success – both academically and professionally – that far surpasses that of the public schools to which we are supposed to be substantially equivalent.”
The proposed regulations would also allow the Education commissioner to stay an LSA’s finding that a school has been substantially equivalent if “persons considering themselves aggrieved” by an LSA’s substantial-equivalency finding object within 30 days of the finding. Moreover, even if a school has already been registered as having a Regents program, been accredited by an approved body, or been given a positive assessment by an LSA, the commissioner may at any time trigger a fresh review if it receives a complaint from anyone about the school’s curriculum.
These provisions, the letter argues, “put even yeshivos that are deemed equivalent at the mercy of those who have made a career of criticizing Yeshivos and Yeshiva education.”
In the letter, the rabbanim request a meeting with Commissioner Rosa to discuss their concerns.
The guidelines are expected to be entered into entered into the State Register on March 30 for a 60-day public comment period, before a possible vote by the Board of Regents as early as September.
Asked by Hamodia on Monday whether Rosa had comment on the criticisms in the letter, and whether she intend to grant the rabbanim a meeting, an Education Department official did not answer directly, stating instead that the Department welcomes public comments through May 31, and will review all public comments over the summer before finalizing the regulations.
Following release of the proposed guidelines earlier this month, Hamodia requested an interview with Rosa or another high-ranking Education official. The Education Department did not respond to these interview requests.
The rabbanim’s letter was also CC’d to Governor Kathy Hochul. The governor’s press office did not respond to Hamodia’s request for comment on the criticisms contained in the letter. Hamodia had also reached out to Hochul for comment on the proposed guidelines when they were first released earlier this month. The governor’s office did not respond with a comment, instead directing Hamodia to the Education Department press office. Hochul’s campaign spokesperson did not respond to Hamodia’s request for comment, either.
Tom Suozzi, who is challenging Hochul in the Democratic gubernatorial primary later this year, previously told Hamodia that private-school curricula “should be up to the parents and the schools.” Suozzi also criticized the recently released guidelines, telling Hamodia, “Most yeshivas perform well. One size fits all does not work. If attention needs to be paid to schools that do not perform well … then try and help, but the state should be hands off.”
A spokesperson for Lee Zeldin, the leading Republican candidate, did not respond to Hamodia’s request for comment on the release of the proposed regulations earlier this month.
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