Outraged, Pleading, Defiant New York Yeshivas Brace for Vote on Education Regulations

By Reuvain Borchardt

new york yeshiva regulations

NEW YORK — Yeshivas statewide are bracing for a Board of Regents vote on regulations that would for the first time allow the government to approve or reject private schools’ secular-studies curriculum.

The Board of Regents meeting scheduled for mid-September would be the first time such regulations have been subject to a vote, during a seven-year state battle over what secular education a child deserves.  

The battle has pitted those who allege some yeshivas offer a poor secular education that inadequately prepares students for life and livelihood, against those who say the totality of a yeshiva education is actually superior to that offered in public schools and that yeshiva graduates live more productive lives than public-school graduates.

“This is no trivial matter: when government dictates to us what and how we must teach our children in our yeshivas, it attacks our most fundamental freedom,” says Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America. “If the Board of Regents votes to authorize such an attack, we dare not — we will not — stand idly by.”

Rabbi Zwiebel, who is also on the executive board of the pro-yeshiva organization PEARLS (Parents for Education and Religious Liberty in Schools) was one of several community leaders who spoke with Hamodia this week in advance of the impending vote, likely to be held at the September 12-13 Regents meeting.

“We beg government to take a step back and change course,” says Rabbi Moshe Dovid Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and an executive board member of PEARLS. “Government should accommodate, not obstruct, the quality education that we provide our children.”

For more than a century, state law has required that private schools provide an education “substantially equivalent” to that offered in public schools — but the law never delineated how “substantial equivalency” is determined.

In 2015, some former New York City yeshiva students who have left the Orthodox community began alleging that they had received an inferior secular education, and the State Education Department (SED) has since been deliberating over specific regulations to certify substantial equivalency. But yeshivas, Catholic and other private schools have opposed what they deem an infringement on religious liberties and parental rights.

The new rules being voted on in September were released in March of this year, and were the third attempt by the state during the past four years to pass regulations on private schools’ secular studies curricula.

The first iteration of proposed regulations, released in late 2018, mandated specific courses of study and the minimum number of hours to be dedicated to each subject. Private schools would have been placed under the purview of the local school authority (LSA) — the schools chancellor in New York City and local school boards elsewhere — which would have to assess each school for substantial equivalency.

Those proposed regulations were struck down by a judge on procedural grounds in April 2019, then released again under proper procedures in July 2019. But during the subsequent 60-day public-comment period, about 140,000 comments were submitted to SED, nearly all from yeshiva parents and graduates opposing the rules. SED then withdrew the proposed regulations and conducted meetings with stakeholders before releasing the new proposed regulations in March.

Under these latest proposed regulations, private schools may avoid the LSA review if they have a Regents program. If a yeshiva’s high school offers Regents exams, the entire school, including its elementary grades, is deemed substantially equivalent. But a school that is elementary-only (as are many yeshivas outside Brooklyn) wouldn’t have this option.

Another option for a yeshiva to avoid LSA review is receiving accreditation by a government-approved accrediting body. Currently, there are virtually no accrediting agencies that have dealt with the yeshiva community. So if the regulations pass, yeshiva groups will likely renew efforts to establish accrediting agencies dedicated to serving their community.

A school that has no Regents program and doesn’t receive accreditation will be subject to the LSA review — which must be conducted no later than the end of the 2024-2025 school year, and every seven years thereafter.

The regulations don’t give hard criteria for how a school passes an LSA review, but mentions factors  that “must be considered,” including:  whether English is the language of instruction; students who have limited English proficiency are provided with instructional programs enabling them to make progress toward English lproficiency; the math, science, English language arts and social studies curriculum is substantially equivalent to that offered in public schools; there are courses similar to that provided in public schools in subjects including patriotism and citizenship, the U.S. and New York constitutions, state history and civics, physical education, driving safety, fire drills and fire and arson prevention, injury prevention, life safety education, CPR and defibrillator use, and abuse of alcohol, drugs and tobacco.

It is unclear whether a school must provide courses in each of these subjects, or can omit or substitute several. 

After the LSA determines that a school is substantially equivalent, “persons considering themselves aggrieved” by this determination — even if they are not school students or parent s— may file an appeal to the education commissioner, and the school would have to be re-examined.

Children attending a school deemed non-substantially-equivalent would be considered truant, and the parent may be jailed.

Yeshiva advocates consider these 2022 proposed regulations somewhat less intrusive than the 2018-2019 iterations, but object strongly nonetheless. 

Those advocates argue that government oversight of private-school curricula violates religious and parental rights and improperly focuses on inputs rather than outputs, and that outcomes among yeshiva graduates compare favorably with those of public schools’.

“The notion that our precious yeshivas are not providing an education that is substantially equivalent to the public schools — the public schools — would be comical if it wouldn’t be so harmful,” says Rabbi Zwiebel. “Even viewed from a secular perspective, the yeshivas’ dual education program of both religious studies and secular studies is a rigorous academic program that develops true educational skills which far surpass those offered in public schools.

“The purpose of education ought to be developing a student’s ability to use his mind, which is the ultimate guarantor of a positive educational outcome. It’s precisely for this reason that graduates of our yeshivas have achieved such tremendous success in all walks of life.”

While yeshiva groups universally oppose the new regulations, their objections have differed. Groups representing most yeshivas, like Agudath Israel, UJO and PEARLS, have taken a pragmatic approach of discussing and negotiating with education officials over proposed regulations, some form of which may be inevitable. A substantial minority, however, led by the Satmar community of the Rebbe Harav Aaron Teitelbaum, have opposed the notion of LSA oversight whatsoever.

During a public-comment period in April and May, about 300,000 comments were submitted, once again nearly all opposing the regulations. The comments were collected by groups like Agudah, Satmar, PEARLS, Torah Umesorah and Chabad, and written by yeshiva parents, students, teachers, alumni and administrators. A number of letters were submitted by professionals — both individuals and groups — arguing that their yeshiva education did not hinder, but in fact laid the groundwork, for their successes in various professions and industries. 

SED is required to gather, review and provide a report on the comments prior to a final vote on the regulations by its governing body, the Board of Regents.

When it released the regulations in March, SED said it anticipated that the guidelines would be presented for a final vote at the September 2022 Board of Regents meeting. 

SED typically releases the agenda for each Regents meeting just days before the meeting. But a source familiar with the proceedings told Hamodia that at the upcoming meeting, to be held September 12 and 13, the Board is indeed planning to provide a report on the hundreds of thousands of comments it received in April and May, and to vote on adopting the regulations.

SED would not respond to Hamodia’s requests for detailed information on the agenda of the upcoming meeting, but a statement issued on behalf of spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said, “Department staff are reviewing public comments and developing a draft item that will include an assessment of public comments for consideration by the Board of Regents. Any proposed regulation will be made public on the Department’s website at least 24 hours prior to the Board of Regents meeting where it will be considered, in accordance with the Open Meetings Law.”

Yeshiva advocates say the battle over curricula is among the most consequential issues to have faced Orthodox Jews in postwar United States.

“When they write the history of Torah Jewry in America, a prominent chapter will be about substantial equivalency,” says Rabbi Zwiebel. “Certainly in the nearly 40 years that I have been privileged to work for Agudath Israel, there has been no greater challenge.”

Though they have held meetings with SED officials, the yeshiva leaders allege the officials have not made a good-faith attempt to understand and acknowledge the uniqueness of a yeshiva education.

“We held so many rounds of discussions with various Regents and SED staff to engage them on the issue, but unfortunately, we haven’t found a listening ear,” says Rabbi Niederman.

“The massive outpouring of public comments surely has some influence on the public perception of what’s happening, but it’s disturbing that the people in charge of education in the state do not seem to be treating it as anything significant,” says Harav Yisroel Reisman, one of the roshei yeshivah who represented Torah Umesorah in talks with SED officials. “We still don’t know what they will do, or if they will adjust the proposed regulations, but we find it disturbing that they haven’t reached out to us yet for a substantive discussion, and it would be inconceivable for them to ignore these comments.”

Orthodox Jewish activists who have spoken with Hamodia have also expressed frustration that while Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has conveyed support for yeshivas generally, she has not taken a position on these proposed regulations.

Though SED and the Board of Regents operate independently of the governor — Regents are appointed by the state Legislature, and in turn appoint SED officials — the governor has influence over SED through her role in setting the state budget, and through her bully pulpit. 

When the proposed regulations were released earlier this year, Hamodia reached out to the governor’s office as well as her reelection campaign for comment; the former directed Hamodia to SED, and the latter did not reply.

When a Hamodia reporter asked Gov. Hochul at an April appearance in Boro Park about the proposed regulations, the governor did not respond directly, saying that she’s “visited many yeshivas” and noting the “quality” of their education and “how important that is.” 

However, she said, “the state Education Department operates 100% independently from the administration. It is not an agency that I have jurisdiction or oversight over. But I’m also listening to the concerns of the community and I’m taking them very seriously.”

Gov. Hochul’s  Republican opponent in the upcoming November election, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, has expressed opposition to the proposed regulations, telling a Hamodia reporter in July, “The state is wrong to be pushing the substantial-equivalency standards” and that “yeshiva education is a high-quality education that should be embraced, should be rewarded.”

Avi Schick, an attorney who has represented yeshiva groups in their battle over the education regulations and is a former Deputy Attorney General of New York, says Gov. Hochul may pay a political price for her non-stance.

“There are two Gov. Hochuls: one who has rebuffed every effort by leaders of the yeshiva community to engage with her on the state’s efforts to regulate yeshiva education, and the other who has her hand out for donations and votes from that same community,” says Mr. Schick. “She is gambling that the community will forego their principles come November. That is a bad bet. People might vote for an elected official whose views on social issues diverge from theirs, but intruding in yeshiva curriculum is entirely different.”

As the clock ticks toward a vote that may dramatically alter the relationship between government and private schools in New York, yeshiva advocates’ sentiments ranging from outrage to pleading to defiance.

“By moving forward in this way, SED demonstrates not only its disregard for the rabbinic leadership of the yeshiva community, which has made many attempts to substantively engage, but also its disrespect for the hundreds of thousands of community members who made their voices heard through their public comments,” says Mr. Schick. “SED would never treat any other community the way it is treating Orthodox Jews, but its leadership is cynically wagering that in 2022 New York there will be no price to pay for trampling over the Orthodox community.”   

“The indications that SED is about to totally disregard the hundreds of thousands of community members who voiced their concerns with the proposed regulations, are deeply disappointing,” says Rabbi Niederman. “We still hold out hope that the Board of Regents won’t rubber stamp the regulations but will realize that the regulations will have a seismic impact on hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, and will agree to real engagement.

“But we stand ready either way. The proposed regulations are unacceptable. We will not waver. And with G-d’s help, we will prevail.” 

According to a person familiar with Regents traditions, while only a simple majority is required to pass the regulations, the Board typically prefers to pass items unanimously, so strong opposition from just one or two Regents may postpone a final vote.

rborchardt@hamodia.com

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