Parental Rights and Wrongs

By Reuvain Borchardt

Jay Greene, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, spoke last Friday with Hamodia about the New York State Board of Regents passing regulations on the secular-studies curriculum of private schools, and about a New York Times article that portrayed Chassidic yeshivos as denying their students a proper education.

What is your reaction to New York’s new regulations of private schools?

I think this is a gross overstep on the part of public authorities in New York to interfere in the way that a very healthy, vibrant, and long-lasting community is functioning very successfully. So they’re attempting to fix a problem where there really isn’t one, and they’re imposing their values on a community with very different values.

If “they’re attempting to fix a problem where there really isn’t one,” what do you believe is their motivation?

It’s hard to know people’s motivations with confidence. But in a piece that [Heritage colleague] Jason Bedrick and I wrote in the Daily Signal in advance of The New York Times piece, we say we suspect that the Times and its readership find a traditional community that does not share their priorities to be objectionable precisely because this is a community that won’t embrace the values that they believe everyone should hold.

In other words, I think deep down there is a fundamental intoleranceat The New York Times and among many of their readers. So they can’t accept that there’s a community that doesn’t wish to be like that, that doesn’t aspire to the same types of secular power and status that they aspire to.

Jay Greene

Can you get into some specific things you object to in the Times article?

The Times article was a prosecutorial brief that took them two years to compile. They did their best to try to slander these schools and the community that they serve, and it’s amazing what a shoddy job they did despite a large amount of time and significant resources.

They largely compiled highly selective anecdotes, and the data points that they do present are incredibly distorted and out of context.

There were four main empirical claims in the Times piece that Jason Bedrick and I have debunked.

One is that the private schools are “flush with public money.” What they present is that a billion dollars of public funds go to these schools over a four-year period. That works out to $250 million a year. They’re a little unclear about how many students they’re looking at because the set of schools that they’re examining changes within the piece. So it could be a set of 50,000 students or a set of 100,000 students. That would put the total amount per year in public funds between $2,500 and $5,000 per student.

Most of those dollars go to non-instructional things that these students would be entitled to receive regardless of what schools they attended. Food is the largest one, but also things like transportation and safety. Yet they’re somehow suggesting that because public funds help feed these children, they should then control the content of the instruction. That’s an intellectual distortion, but the empirical distortion is when they say this means that the schools are “flush with public money”; they fail to compare it to the New York public school system, where they spend over $31,000 per pupil per year. That’s a school system that’s flush with public money. The yeshivas hardly receive a trickle of public money, and almost all of that is for non-instructional purposes.

The second claim is that, despite receiving these public funds, these schools have very low academic performance. They reject presenting the results of the New York Regents exams, which are the high school exams given in core subjects, even though there are a lot of reports of yeshivah students performing exceptionally well on the Regents exam. But they don’t even tell us the numbers or say that they’re high-performing. They just tell us it’s not representative of the yeshivas because relatively few Hasidic students take this exam. But instead, they present the results of the New York State exam that’s given to primary school students. Now that test is also administered only to a small number of select Hasidic students. But somehow that selectivity is acceptable for them, while it’s not for the Regents exams.

The selective results for the primary school exam are less favorable, and show that nine yeshivas have fewer than 1% of the students performing at grade level. But to put that in perspective, you’d have to compare it to English Language Learning (ELL) students in the public school system. Almost all the students that the Times is examining in the yeshivas come from homes where languages other than English are spoken at home, which would, if they were in the public school system, qualify them as English Language Learners. So the apples-to-apples comparison would be between yeshivah students and ELL students in New York City public schools. And when we do that, we see that 155 New York City public schools have less than 1% of their students performing at grade level.

One other statistic, to put that in perspective: At 95% of New York City’s public schools, at least two thirds of ELL students are unable to perform at grade level. This is really just another way of saying that students who come from homes where languages other than English are spoken have a hard time performing well on the New York state test. They come to school with challenges and they’re young children during primary grades, so they haven’t had time to acquire more English proficiency either from school or from outside. And they perform poorly — but they perform poorly whether they’re in yeshivas or in New York City public schools.

The third claim is that because of the low academic performance, the students go on to a life of government dependency and impoverishment. And they present anecdotes of people who have sad outcomes — including one former yeshivah student who struggled in medical school. Spoiler alert: He actually finished medical school, but struggling in medical school is somehow a sign of impoverishment.

In any event, we looked at actual data on household income by Hasidic families relative to New York City families or broader communities. And while it’s hard to get the picture exactly, in general we find that the household earnings in the Hasidic community are at least as high as the American average. Yes, there are pockets of poverty within the yeshivah community, as there are in the rest of the country and throughout New York City. But there isn’t some incredibly high concentration of poverty within that community that would make these schools suspect as causing their graduates to lead a life of government dependency.

The last point is The New York Times claims that the yeshivas are unsafe, because they list a few anecdotes of students being hit for misbehavior or non-performance. We just compare that to the New York City public schools, where there are over 8,000 reports of criminal activity within the schools within a single year, relative to The New York Times’ anecdotes of what look like maybe a handful of cases per year.

There is always some amount of misconduct in school, sometimes by the staff, sometimes by students, but the rate of misconduct and the amount of danger within yeshivas is a tiny fraction of the violence and danger found in New York City public schools.

Do you believe the state has any legitimate interest in seeing that children be secularly educated?

I think the only legitimate interest of the state is to ensure that children are not subject to abuse or neglect. But short of evidence of abuse or neglect, the state should defer to families as to how those children are educated.

Would you consider a minimal secular education to be neglect?

I would not.

We don’t have a national set of values or a national language that is required. We allow families and communities to decide what they think is important, and what knowledge and skills they think are useful for those things they value. I do think that it would constitute neglect if a family failed to educate their child at all. But if the family does choose to educate their children in their own values, with their own priorities, even if those values and priorities are different from the broader community, that’s not abuse or neglect. It’s simply them pursuing their values as they’re entitled to do.

One argument commonly made by the yeshivah community is that the regulations focus on inputs rather than outputs in how the community members fare as adults, whether it’s in the businesses they create, or in living peaceful lives, with very low crime, very little homelessness, etc. What’s your opinion of that argument?

I think this speaks to what we were just discussing, regarding what is the state’s interest in regulating education. Again, the state’s interest should simply be that families are educating their child in whatever their values and priorities are. And different communities will have different values and priorities. Now, the fact is that those who attend yeshivas have outcomes that most of society would actually find to be very beneficial, like high rates of family stability, low rates of crime, homelessness, and drug dependence, all of which would be desirable.

And certainly, the fact that this community poses no threat, no danger to the broader society in which it lives, is further argument for why they should be left alone and not interfered with by state regulation.

There is no public benefit served here by attempting to dictate how these children should be raised, rather than how their own parents and their own community would like to raise their children.

Education is simply an extension of child-rearing. It’s part of how we raise our children. And there’s no reason to think that bureaucrats in Albany are any better at raising children than their own parents.

Do you believe that if these regulations got to the Supreme Court, they would be deemed unconstitutional?

Jason Bedrick, Matthew Lee, and I edited a book on the yeshivah controversy called Liberty and Religious Education: A Case Study of Yeshivas vs. New York, in which there were chapters on the legal dispute. I have a Ph.D. in political science and I’m an education policy expert, but I am not a lawyer. My reading of those chapters and the arguments is actually that this is one of the weaker arguments that the Orthodox community has. It appears to me to be likely that the state can regulate the schools from a constitutional perspective.

So you think the better argument for those who oppose these laws is to lobby state officials and public opinion, rather than file lawsuits?

I think it’s probably useful to fight on all fronts. But I think existing case law suggests that the political front is likely to be more beneficial than the legal front for producing victory for the Orthodox community.

There are very good lawyers working for the yeshivas, who are making very good arguments, and they might prevail.

And by the way, I like their arguments, but I’m just worried that people shouldn’t believe that the courts are going to rescue them. Political action is what’s going to be needed here.

The current Supreme Court is considered extremely religion-friendly. So even if you think the New York regulations are constitutional under current case law, do you believe if a case came before the current Court, it might go further than the existing precedents in terms of pro-religious liberties and anti-state regulation, and actually overturn these New York regulations?

There’s definitely a chance that the current Supreme Court could expand religious protections and also expand the rights of parents to direct the education of their own children. I think that is definitely possible here, given the current composition of the court, but we can’t count on them doing those things, and we can’t count on them doing it in the first case of its type to reach them. They might do it over many cases, and not all at once. Again, that’s why I think the political front is more likely to be fruitful than the legal one.

It’s possible the legal one will pay off. But you can’t rely on courts. If you want to win on policy, you really need to win elections. And I thought that The New York Times piece was quite dastardly in painting the Orthodox community’s political efforts as somehow nefarious or inappropriate. I think it is actually essential and good for any community to organize itself and advocate for its interest in the political arena, just like everyone else is entitled to do.

But that’s where victory I think is likely to be found, and that’s why I think the Orthodox community should continue to concentrate its efforts on the political front.

Do you have any final comments?

I just want to say that I am not an Orthodox Jew. I grew up in a Conservative Jewish household and come from a more secular tradition. But I think this is not an issue that is only about the Orthodox community.

And frankly, I don’t think it’s even only about Jews, although I do think that there’s an antisemitic component to this hostility being directed at the Orthodox schools.

This is really an issue about parental rights: Who’s going to raise children — the state or the parents?

I believe deeply that parents should raise their own children, and that’s why it’s important for us to protect the rights of this community’s ability to raise their own children. I also have to say that, personally, the approach found in some of these yeshivas is not how I raised my children, and it’s not how I would raise children. But I respect the rights of others to make these choices.

rborchardt@hamodia.com

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