Jewish Community Argues for Autonomy as NYSED Continues to Draft Guidelines

Jewish Community Argues for Autonomy as NYSED Continues to Draft Guidelines

By Yehudit Garmaise

     The New York State Education Department (NYSED) will continue this summer where it left off nearly two years ago when it prepared rigid oversight regulations for private schools that were seen by both Jewish and non-Jewish schools as excessive. In turn, many outside the religious school communities responded by demanding that non-public schools provide educations that “substantially equivalent,” both in the number of hours of secular studies and subject matters taught, to those of public schools.

    When community members were invited to meet with the NYSED late last year, many were hopeful that the department had a better sense of the needs and of the Orthodox Jewish community.

     “Now, we are going to be able to have more targeted conversations,” said Avrohom Weinstock, Agudath Israel’s chief of staff. ”I think we have made it clear that what is being asked is out of bounds."

      Many left-wing critics, who otherwise promote “respect for cultural diversity,” ruthlessly attack and make generalizations about the yeshiva system, which is comprised of a diverse array of nearly 500 schools.

    While the Jewish community would like to choose its own curricula, texts, and language of instruction, many opposed to yeshiva education say that the yeshivas do not provide enough secular education, or sometimes even basic literacy, despite high rates of higher schooling, sometimes at the best schools, and professional success among yeshiva graduates.

   In fact, in 2019, the Jewish Press published Regent test scores that revealed that the students at New York yeshivas widely outperform students in public schools.

   Last week in Midwood, when Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein and City Councilman Kalman Yeger endorsed Andrew Yang for mayor in front of Eichler’s on Coney Island Avenue, New York Times reporter Liam Stack used the opportunity in a Jewish neighborhood to somewhat disingenuously ask Yang for “his thoughts about the ‘investigation’ into yeshivas, which, he said, are seemingly not compliant with the city’s ‘substantial equivalency’ standards of education.”

    “I actually take issue with that question,” said Eichenstein, who quickly pointed out that only 5 out of 275 yeshivas in New York City were considered underdeveloped, according to the Department of Education’s report.

    “Five out of 275 is a pretty good ratio,” Assemblyman Eichenstein said definitively. “And I challenge any school system to match that.” In contrast to good outcomes of the city’s yeshivas, which spend widely varying amounts of time on secular and Torah studies, Eichenstein pointed out that in Brooklyn’s public School District 20 public school system, the student's proficiency rates are shockingly dismal: as low as 3% for fifth graders who speak English as a second language at home, like many Chassidishe families do, while also ranking higher in educational studies.

    “Perhaps the New York Times should do a story about that,” said Eichenstein, pointing out that the biased reporting that results from the mainstream media’s refusal to criticize the city’s public school system, while using every opportunity to bash yeshivas.

    After the NYSED originally said that students who were not provided with at least four to five hours of secular studies per day would be considered illegally absent from school, in April 2019, Agudath Israel, Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in School (PEARLS), and Torah Umesorah filed a lawsuit about the state’s excessive guidelines with the New York Supreme Court, which declared the state’s guidelines, “null and void” and “illegally implemented,” and sided with the yeshivas. 

     Just three months later, the state again proposed nearly identical regulations for New York’s private schools, but this time, the court allowed for a “public comment period,” in which people could voice their perspectives and concerns.

    “The feedback [to the regulations] was quite clear,” said Mr. Weinstock, who explained that a record-breaking 140,000 letters were received from yeshiva graduates and parents statewide.

    Although a few yeshiva graduates “and other highly vocal individuals sometimes loudly complain how woefully horrible their upbringings and their educations were,” admits Mr. Weinstock, he also pointed out that out of the 140,000 impassioned letters, only a few hundred of the letters were negative about the yeshiva system, and those attitudes were based on the information they had received from the state. "The overwhelming majority of the letters were against the rigid state oversight of yeshivas."

    “People in the Orthodox Jewish community make careful choices about how they raise their children and sacrifice financially to send their children to the yeshivas of their choosing. Parents, of course, want their choices respected,” Mr. Weinstock said. “We have to think carefully about exactly what the state might consider absolutely necessary.”

    Many yeshivas feel that mostly Jewish texts and subjects are sufficient for teaching students logical and critical thinking.

    “For instance, is Shakespeare really necessary for every school?” Weinstock asked rhetorically. “As a lawyer, I haven’t used trigonometry a whole lot.”

     “Is there any room for improvement?” BoroPark24 asked.

     “Sure, however, what the government would require for educational content is a valid concern for many frum families,” Mr. Weinstock said.

     “There is content that the government right now considers required learning for both public schools and non-public schools that could raise real concerns.

    “It is no secret that there are individuals and forces who are pushing an agenda that is not necessarily what most parents in our community want for their children.

     “An education is not just about counting the hours of secular studies. Plus, not all parents want their children to be exposed to the same subjects and at the same ages that the state might impose and decide. When educational content is dictated by the government, what does that mean? What is next? Whatever is the flavor of the month.”

   COVID delayed the education department’s guideline revisions, but the NYSED is going back to the drawing boards once again this summer to redraft regulations for non-public schools.

   After the Board of Regents is given the opportunity to provide feedback to the NYSED, the public also will again be able to comment and to provide feedback, first in a 60-day period. After the NYSED considers the feedback and revises its regulations, the public will once again be able to give its input during a 45-day period.

   “Depending on what the NYSED drafts next, the community might need to once again make its voice heard to affect the governmental control of yeshiva education,” said Mr. Weinstock. “We understand the state’s interest in certain minimum requirements: a certain basic baseline to which we can agree, but the state has to understand where to hold off and respect the autonomy of our yeshivas.”

   “Parental choice and religious autonomy for how parents wish to raise their children should be given significant deference in private schools.”

Photo by: Unplash

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