New York to Regulate Private Schools’ Curriculum

By Reuvain Borchardt

NEW YORK — The State Board of Regents on Tuesday passed new regulations on secular-studies in private schools, requiring each school to prove to education officials that its curriculum is “at least substantially equivalent” to that offered in public schools. Passage of the regulations transforms the relationship between government and private schools in the Empire State, and caps a years-long battle over what secular education each child deserves and whether it should be determined by parents or governmental authorities.

The regulations would require all private schools to either offer Regents exams, be accredited by an approved accrediting body, or have its curriculum assessed and approved by the local school authority. Schools who fail to satisfy this requirement may lose state funding, and children attending these schools would be deemed truant, with their parents facing fines and jail. Local school authorities that don’t conduct required oversight of private schools may see their state funding cut as well.

The “substantially equivalent” law has been on the books since the late 19th Century, and if a complaint arose about a particular school’s studies being subpar, authorities could investigate it. But there was no specific criteria to determine substantial equivalency, and no requirement that all schools pre-certify as substantially equivalent.

A decade ago, some former New York City yeshiva students began alleging that they hadn’t received a substantially equivalent secular education, and the City’s Department of Education has been conducting a years-long investigation into some two dozen yeshivas.

But in 2015, the State Education Department (SED) began working to formulate specific regulations to define, and require pre-certification of, substantial equivalency.

A heated battle ensued — in the halls of government, in newspapers and on social media — pitting those who allege some yeshivas offer a poor secular education that inadequately prepares students to earn a livelihood and be a part of contemporary society, against those who say that parents should have autonomy in deciding their children’s education in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs, that the totality of a yeshiva education is superior to that offered in public schools, and that yeshiva graduates live more productive lives than do public-school graduates.

Tuesday was the first time the Board of Regents — SED’s governing body — actually voted on substantial-equivalency regulations, though the Department had proposed regulations several times previously.

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 and determine whether it was substantially equivalent. Yeshivas, Catholic schools and independent private schools objected to these regulations, arguing they were an undue interference in parental and religious rights.

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, 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 of this year.

The new regulations offered private schools several pathways to avoid an LSA review, such as by being registered as giving Regents exams or being accredited by an SED-certified accrediting body. Yeshiva groups considered these proposed regulations somewhat less intrusive than the previous iteration, but strongly objected nonetheless into what they deemed an inappropriate intrusion into parental and religious liberties.

During the subsequent 60-day public-comment period in April and May of this year, more than 350,000 comments were submitted, the vast majority from yeshiva graduates opposing the regulations. But the Education Department put the regulations, with no significant emendations, up for a vote by the Board of Regents on Tuesday, and it passed unanimously.

News of the law’s passage was decried by yeshiva groups and celebrated by those who support increased government oversight of yeshivas.

“The regulations have passed!,” tweeted YAFFED (Young Advocates for Fair Education), the group of former yeshiva students whose complaints triggered the new regulations. “Congratulations to all who have advocated for greater oversight and enforcement of non-public schools!”

Rabbi Moshe Dovid Niederman, executive director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, said the regulations “threaten our existence, G-d forbid.”

“We had hoped the Regents would keep an open mind, and not be influenced by the smear attacks, but sadly they did not, and this week’s Times’ article inflamed everyone,” Rabbi Niederman told Hamodia, referring to a New York Times article published Sunday about Chassidic yeshivas teaching minimal secular education. “It’s a sad moment, but not a moment of defeat or capitulation. We have had a pathway for thousands of years, of how to respond to such attacks: prayer, along with continued efforts to fight legally.”

As enforcement of the regulations begin, yeshivas will likely focus on one of the alternate pathways to substantial equivalency, to avoid LSA review. While at least six alternate pathways exist, such as if a school participates in the international baccalaureate program or is a state-approved private special-ed school, the two pathways most relevant to yeshivas are that of being registered as offering Regents exams or being accredited by an SED-approved accrediting organization.

If a 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) cannot use this option.

Accreditation by an approved organization appears to be the next-best option for private schools seeking to avoid LSA review — though there are virtually no accrediting organizations that have dealt with the yeshiva community. Yeshiva groups will now likely renew efforts to establish accrediting organizations dedicated to serving their community.

If a school does opt for the LSA review and approval, there are no specific mandated hours of study for particular courses, but the LSA would look at the school’s curriculum in the core subjects of English, math, science and social studies, as well as patriotism and citizenship; history; the significance and the effect of the provisions of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the New York State Constitution and their amendments; New York State history and civics; physical education; health education regarding alcohol, drugs and tobacco abuse; highway safety and traffic regulation; fire drills, fire and arson prevention and injury prevention, and CPR and AED use. It is not clear whether the school is required to teach each of these subjects, or if it may omit or substitute several.

But yeshiva groups said that regardless of the regulations, they will continue to educate their children as their customs demand.

“We will resist at all costs,” said Rabbi Niederman, “and nobody will be able to force us to change our way of life established by our holy tradition.”

“As religious Jews, we seek above all else to raise our families in the traditions of our faith,” read a statement from the leading rabbis of the Agudath Israel and Torah Umesorah organizations.

“Our people have sacrificed so much over the millennia to preserve the institution of the yeshiva – the foundation of our faith. We cannot relinquish control of the yeshivas that are the essence of our people. We cannot surrender control of our curricula.”

“Our religious requirements have not been adequately addressed,” the statement continued. “Our rabbinic leadership has not been properly heard. Our 300,000 pleas of our communities have not been given the attention they deserve. Our people simply cannot abandon our religious values. With the help of G-d we will not permit it to happen.”

Yeshiva groups are not the only entities unhappy with the requirements of the new regulations. The New York City Department of Education, which now may have to inspect and approve or reject some of the nearly 500 yeshivas in the city in addition to administrating the nation’s largest public-school system, said in a statement, “We believe these regulations put an undue burden on our public school system,” but that “we will faithfully implement all NYSED regulations.”

By December 1, 2023, private schools must demonstrate that they meet one of the alternate pathways, or choose to have an LSA review. The initial LSA review would be conducted by no later than the end of the 2024-2025 school year, though a school may request additional time to demonstrate substantial equivalency.

Religious schools and organizations might seek to sue to overturn the regulations as a violation of religious liberties, though no groups announced a lawsuit in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s vote.

The full regulations are available here

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