NYC Declares 18 Yeshivas Providing Insufficient Secular Education
By Reuvain Borchardt
NEW YORK — Eighteen New York City yeshivas have been deemed to be not providing its students a legally mandated secular education, a ruling that could potentially force thousands of parents who send their children to those schools to arrange supplemental lessons.
The other seven of the 25 schools investigated were deemed compliant.
Friday’s ruling, by Schools Chancellor David Banks, is the latest development in a battle over yeshivah education that began more than a decade ago, when a group of former Chassidim began alleging that they had not received a secular education “substantially equivalent” to that offered in public schools, as required by law.
The battle — which has been fought in the halls of government, in some of the nation’s most prominent newspapers, and on social media — pitted those who allege some yeshivas offer a poor secular education, leaving students inadequately prepared to earn a livelihood and participate in modern society, against those who say that parents deserve religious autonomy, that the totality of a yeshivah education is superior to that offered in public schools, and that yeshivah graduates live more productive lives than do public-school graduates.
In 2015, the group YAFFED (Young Advocates for Fair Education) submitted a complaint to the city Department of Education (DoE), naming 39 yeshivas it alleged were providing an insufficient secular education. After an initial investigation — which found two yeshivas compliant, some either not compliant or in various stages of achieving compliance, and that others did not exist — the list was ultimately whittled down to 25 yeshivas that required further inspection by the DoE.
After the investigations were delayed by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who left office at the end of 2021, the State Education Department (SED) set a date of Friday, June 30, 2023, by which the DoE had to complete its investigation.
At the same time, SED was seeking to enact regulations for how private schools must fulfill the “substantial equivalency” requirement; though the law has been on the books for more than a century, the term had never been defined.
After years of court and political battles, SED passed regulations last September, establishing that a school can achieve substantial equivalency via one of several options, including: having a high school that offers Regents exams, being accredited by an approved accrediting body, or using assessments approved by SED that demonstrate student academic progress. If a school doesn’t qualify under one of these options, it may prove substantial equivalency by the method that schools consider most intrusive: the school having its curriculum reviewed and approved the local school authority —defined as the schools chancellor in New York City and the local school board elsewhere.
Those regulations are currently under appeal in court.
In Friday’s ruling, Chancellor Banks determined that seven of the 25 yeshivas were deemed substantially equivalent to the new regulations — five because they are, or are connected with, a registered high school, and two that passed a DoE review.
Banks — who was appointed by Mayor Eric Adams, who has praised yeshivas during his campaign and throughout his mayoralty — determined that four other schools were not providing a substantially equivalent education. The remaining 14 fall under a 2018 law known as the “Felder Amendment,” in which the chancellor doesn’t make a final determination as to substantial equivalency status, but makes a recommendation to SED Commissioner Betty Rosa, who makes the final determination. In all 14 cases, Banks is recommending that Rosa deem the schools non substantially equivalent. Rosa is expected to accept that recommendation.
DoE spokesman Nathaniel Styer said in a statement that DoE’s “goal is to build trust, work with the community, and ensure schools are in compliance with state education law and regulations.”
Schools deemed not substantially equivalent have 60 days to work with DoE to create and implement a remediation plan, which they “will have 1-2 years to put in place,” Styer said.
“Once again, our goal is to educate children,” Styer said, “not to punish the adults.”
DoE has publicly released the letters to the 11 schools it has made determinations on, but has not released the recommendation reports it submitted to Rosa for the 14 “Felder Amendment” schools — neither to the media nor to the yeshivas themselves. Several yeshiva administrators and advocates expressed frustration to Hamodia that they have been unable to see the reports, feeling they are effectively fighting a battle for their existence without seeing the evidence presented against them. DoE says that as these reports are not final determinations, they are not being made public.
Friday’s rulings by Banks were celebrated by those who have supported government oversight of yeshivas, and criticized by the yeshiva community.
“The arc of history is long, and it bends toward justice,” YAFFED tweeted.
But YAFFED said it was only “cautiously optimistic” and “remain[s] concerned” about the “loophole” that allows regents-accredited yeshivas to be deemed substantially equivalent, favoring instead a mandatory DoE review of all schools. “These schools were not given a thorough review,” YAFFED wrote, “and as long as schools are able to receive a rubber stamp of approval without real oversight, students will continue to be deprived of a basic education.”
The yeshiva group PEARLS (Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools) said yeshiva parents will continue to educate their children as they always have.
“We reject the attempt to measure the efficacy of yeshiva education by applying a skewed set of technical requirements,” which “is designed to obscure rather than illuminate the beauty and success of yeshiva education,” PEARLS said in a statement.
“The outcomes of yeshiva education are on display every day across New York: in the successful business and professional careers of tens of hundreds of thousands yeshiva graduates and in the law abiding and loving families they are raising here.
“Parents choose yeshiva education for their children because of the religious, moral and educational philosophy and approach of those who lead yeshivas. They will continue to do so, regardless of how many government lawyers try to insist that yeshiva education is best measured by checklists they devise rather than the lives yeshiva graduates lead.”
Agudath Israel said in a statement, “Parents sacrifice deeply and spend heavily to educate their children in yeshivas. They do so because they recognize the enormous benefits of yeshiva education. Yeshiva graduates are steeped in moral values. Their minds have been trained to think critically and creatively. They are literate in multiple languages and scholars of the great texts that define Judaism. Their love for learning lasts a lifetime. Their charitable giving and deeds know no peer. While these items may not appear on any government checklist, they are critically important educational qualities, at least to the parents who send their children there.
“Agudath Israel is proud of the yeshivas in New York, and their longstanding track record of producing successful graduates and peaceful citizens.”
Agudah then quoted from a speech Mayor Adams recent gave at a Teach NYS dinner in which the mayor spoke in support of yeshivas.
“In Mayor Adams’ own words, ‘Rather than asking what are you doing in your schools, we need to ask what are we doing wrong in our schools and learn from what you are doing in the yeshivas.’ We couldn’t agree more.”
The SED regulations passed in September 2022 were challenged in court earlier this year by PEARLS, Agudath Israel and other yeshiva groups. State Supreme Court Justice Christina Ryba ruled that while the regulations themselves are constitutional and legal, the requirement to provide a substantially equivalent education is directed at parents, rather than schools.
Therefore, if a school is determined to be non substantially equivalent and remedial measures fail, the parents shall be given an opportunity to prove they are providing supplementary education, such as with homeschooling. Children who do not receive a substantially equivalent education may be deemed truant, and their parents may be fined or jailed.
Due to the impracticality of DoE having to potentially conduct an investigation into the individual homeschooling programs of thousands of students, Ryba’s ruling was viewed as largely favorable to the yeshiva community. SED has said it will appeal her ruling.
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