Lack of secular education sparks battle over New York’s ultra-Orthodox schools

On Tuesday, the New York State Board of Regents voted to authorize extensive oversight of all nonpublic schools in the state; it is a measure that many say is aimed squarely at the Orthodox yeshivas.

The vote follows years of lobbying by individuals and groups claiming that children studying in yeshivasespecially Hasidic schools, receive little or no secular education and are ill-prepared for life outside their communities.

Complaints about Hasidic schools – boys’ schools in particular, as girls tend to have class time allotted to secular subjects – were exposed in an article by The New York Times on Sunday.

The five-page article claimed that “generations of children have been systematically deprived of a basic education, trapping many in a cycle of unemployment and dependency. … [T]Students in boys’ schools aren’t just lagging behind. They suffer from levels of educational deprivation seen nowhere else in New York.

However, community leaders and parents in Hasidic countries and haredi Orthodox communities believe that their schools provide the education they want for their children.

Of the 350,000 public comments received on potential changes to oversight by the New York State Department of Education in the months leading up to Tuesday’s vote, “the vast majority of comments expressed philosophical opposition to the state regulation of non-public schools,” according to a published report. late last week.

Many who oppose the state’s decision think that the issue is not really about the quality of education, but who decides what a child learns: the parents or the state.

“Personally, I am extremely upset with where we are. As the mother and grandmother of yeshiva students and as yeshiva-educated graduate, I don’t want any government entity telling us what we should and shouldn’t teach our children,” said Rivkie Feiner, who lives in suburban Rockland County, NY, adding, “I don’t don’t want them to interfere at all. Leave us alone.”

She readily admits that some aspects can be improved; however, Feiner believes it is up to parents to choose whether or not to accept the status quo.

“I want my children to be educated, that’s not the problem,” she insisted. “It’s just that I want my husband and I to choose, not the government.”

“Bound to tradition and resistant to changing norms”

According to a 2020 report from the Manhattan Institute think tank, more than 440,000 children were enrolled in nonpublic schools in New York State for the 2018-2019 school year, including some 170,000 students in Jewish schools — a number that includes Modern Orthodox day schools , community day schools and haredi and Hasidic schools.

“Jewish schools now constitute the largest group of private schools in the state and educate more students than charter schools,” the report said. “Religious schools exist on a different dimension from exclusive private schools. Here, parents seek for their children an education based on their own culture and religious traditions.

“Religious schools are often tied to tradition and resistant to the rapidly changing social and educational norms that some perceive in public schools,” he continued. “That was true of Catholic schools in their heyday, and it is true of Orthodox Jewish schools today.”

But it is this rigidity – the tie to tradition and the resistance to educational change – that worries proponents of surveillance.

As Hilly Rubin, a resident of the heavily Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park in Brooklyn, NY, put it The New York Times“They could have an education and still have religion. But they don’t, and people suffer so much.

According to Time report, when the Central United Talmudic Academy gave a standardized state test to its students in 2019, all of them failed. In addition, according to the newspaper, 99% was “the failure rate among the thousands of students at Hasidic boys’ schools who took standardized tests in 2019. Nearly half of all New York students passed them. “.

In a statement, YAFFED–Young Advocates for Fair Education, a group made up of former Hasidic students and haredi the schools, which had been pushing for government oversight, said the regulations “would be a major first step in ensuring oversight, enforcement and accountability for many schools that have failed to follow the law for years.”

“Tens of thousands of children have been, and continue to be, denied a basic education in dozens of ultra-Orthodox communities. yeshivas, primarily in Hasidic boys’ schools, across New York. Currently, in elementary and middle schools, those yeshivas only offer a maximum of 90 minutes of secular education per day, limited to teaching basic English and arithmetic. In high schools, they provide ZERO secular education. There’s no English, no math, no science, no social studies. Nothing,” the band said.

They added that the regulations are “far from perfect and contain significant loopholes, but they are an important step toward upholding the rights of all children in New York State to receive a solid, rudimentary education.”

Under the new regulations, schools can choose one of two assessment paths. For the “substantial equivalency pathway,” for example, schools can provide evidence of accreditation from an approved agency or marked improvement in state-approved grade-level assessment exams. Alternatively, a school may choose the “local review option”, in which a “local school authority”, such as a district superintendent, will come to evaluate the education and the curriculum.

“Many parents have concerns”

According to Avrohom Weinstock, chief of staff at Agudath Israel of America, surveillance has the potential to override a parent’s right to choose the school that is best for their child.

He noted that some of the biggest concerns from parents and schools relate to exactly how the monitoring will be carried out.

“Will it be, as some have suggested, a local official walking through the school building with a clipboard? What happens if a subject is not taught the way the state prefers? What if the particular official doesn’t like a teacher, which by regulation must be considered amorphously “competent” by the state? And if the parent who pays to send his child to a certain yeshiva does not want a certain subject to be completely taught? Weinstock said.

“We fear that this will lead to [attacks] on certain stocks,” Weinstock said. “Society is constantly changing, and no one knows where society will be in five or ten years. Once we open the doors to government – ​​and it has to give a stamp and stamp of approval – it’s a dangerous road that worries many parents.

The Agudah rabbis, along with Torah Umesorah, which represents hundreds of yeshivas and day schools, sent an open letter to the Ministry of Education, saying, “As religious Jews, we seek above all to elevate our families in the traditions of our faith. We all stand together! Our people have sacrificed so much over the millennia to preserve the institution of yeshiva— the foundation of our faith.

“We cannot relinquish control of the yeshivas who are the essence of our people. We cannot relinquish control of our curriculum. We cannot leave the selection of our teaching staff to others. … Our people simply cannot abandon our religious values. With God’s help, we will not allow this to happen,” the rabbi said in their letter.

For its part, the NY Department of Education, which has been studying the question of surveillance for several years, said this does not change anything because non-public schools have always been required to provide “at least substantially the equivalent of the instruction given to children of the same age in the public school of the city or district in which that child resides”. This is a standard that dates back to the state’s Education Act of 1894, which required all children between the ages of 6 and 16 to attend school.

Schools opting for a local review option will be assessed on several criteria, including whether:

  • Teaching is given only by a competent teacher.
  • English is the language of instruction for “common subjects”.
  • Math, science, language arts and social studies courses are “substantially equivalent” to what is taught in public schools.
  • Students with limited English proficiency will receive programs to ‘progress towards English proficiency’.

“Equivalence without bureaucrat with clipboard”

One of those who will be responsible for doing these local reviews is Joel Petlin, superintendent of the Kiryas Joel School District in Orange County, NY, which is home to a large Satmar Hasidim community. An Orthodox Jew whose children attended yeshiva Rockland County Schools, Petlin said in a statement, “We currently have 12 non-public school buildings located in the Kiryas Joel School District, serving over 8,600 students.”

He said: “A review of all the classrooms and curricula of these non-public schools will obviously take a long time, but will hopefully be a productive way to assess their educational programs and, in some cases, will be the opportunity to offer constructive methods to enhance instruction, in culturally appropriate ways.

If there’s any “hope,” according to Weinstock, it’s that “the state is listening to some of our concerns that a one-size-fits-all approach to education won’t work. If this rubric of state surveillance is to continue, hopefully we can emerge to a place where equivalence can be demonstrated without the “bureaucrat with clipboard” model.

Feiner, who never graduated from college and runs a business with an international client base and a staff of 23, pointed out that his son received an honorary award based on his state secular studies grades.

“Tell us where we are failing; we are not,” she said. “We just do it differently.”

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