Last week, the New York State Department of Education released new guidance to local school districts that requires them to review and evaluate all nonpublic schools in the State and imposes on those schools strict requirements that includes a comprehensive secular studies program in their daily curriculum. Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said that these new guidelines will be enforced by local school district superintendents who will be visiting every one of the state’s Yeshivas over the next two and a half years and deciding whether they are in compliance with state regulations.
“We want to ensure,” said Elia, “that all students receive the education they are entitled to under the state education law, no matter which school they attend.”
What type of education are New York’s students entitled to by law? That, it seems, is up for interpretation. Section 3204 of New York State’s education law states that a minor is required to be educated by attending a public school “or elsewhere.” Further on, in Section 2, the law states that, “Instruction given to a minor elsewhere than at a public school shall be at least substantially equivalent to instruction given to minors of like age and attainments at the public schools of the city or district where the minor resides.”
The key words in the above law are “substantially equivalent,” and for many years it was mutually understood by state education officials and yeshiva educators that while yeshiva students are perhaps not attending music and art class, their disciplined study of limudei kodesh and Jewish tradition provides them with a generous set of skills in critical thinking, reading comprehension, and more.
This changed dramatically three years ago when a group of former members of the community formed a group known as YAFFED and challenged the status quo by insisting that yeshiva education poorly prepares the community for the life skills necessary for success and that major changes are necessary.
The secular press jumped on the bandwagon, painting the yeshiva community as a backwards and uneducated group who don’t speak English, can barely hold down jobs, and are a burden to society.
The pressure was strong enough to force the Commissioner to issue guidelines that would clarify the meaning of “substantial equivalency” and offer an option for change. Last April, State Senator Simcha Felder included an amendment in the State budget that would allow the “substantial equivalency” issue to be understood in a broader context. The reprieve was short lived.
The guidelines are a cause of concern for the entire yeshiva community, not only the Chassidic schools that were targeted in the past. According to Avi Greenstein, CEO of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, “The guidelines require every yeshiva in New York State to be reviewed, visited, and evaluated in the next two and a half years.” The evaluators will need to fill out a checklist with very specific requirements in school curriculum, daily schedules, enrollment data, and attendance.
Of major concern in these newly released regulations is the number of hours required for secular studies. Appendix A of the Program Requirements expects that fifth through eighth grade yeshiva students receive two ‘units of study’ in English Language Arts, Social Studies, Math, Science, and various units of study for Phys Ed, Health ed, Music, Visual Arts, and more. A unit of study, it says, is equal to at least 180 minutes of instruction per week. Add up the units in this Appendix, says Avi Schick, partner at the law firm of Troutman Sanders, and we are looking at six to seven hours a day of secular studies “without exaggeration” – clearly beyond the scope of what is possible for any Yeshiva that still wishes to offer limudei kodesh in its curriculum. “Obviously,” says Schick, “no yeshiva can do this.”
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel, says that this is probably the biggest challenge this community has faced in his thirty five years of public service. But he adds that all is not doom and gloom. He says that “there’s a lot of acknowledgement here that those who will be reviewing the schools should recognize that non public schools are not public schools and that parents have a right to make choices for their children. It also calls for sensitivity to the culture and religious beliefs of the communities.” On the other hand, he notes, it asks the evaluators to maintain objectivity when reviewing the schools.
“It all depends on how this will be implemented,” he says. “How strict or how flexible they will be.” It’s been long considered sufficient that the academic and analytical skills developed over years of limudei kodesh study would meet the standards required by law. “Not just the knowledge that was gained when learning about an ox that gores a person,” says Zweibel, “but also the critical thinking and reading comprehension skills that our students have in abundance. That’s something they have to take into consideration when they evaluate.”
But there’s no getting around the Appendix that lists the number of hours to be set aside for secular studies. Says Zweibel, “There is enough here in the simple reading of the language that could cause concern not just to the chassidishe yeshivas but even to the more mainstream and litvish and modern Orthodox schools. Any school that has a dual curriculum of instruction is in jeopardy of being asked to change the seder of learning for the day.”
Meanwhile, the Commissioner seems eager to set this plan into motion. As of December, the State plans on training local superintendents on proper procedures for visiting and evaluating the Yeshivas. Some have wondered aloud how local district superintendents who are already overworked will be able to take on this massive assignment. And how will several hundred yeshivos and other non public schools be evaluated in a process that is expected to be repeated every five years? Aside from curriculum changes, says Schick, the checklist also includes questions about staff hiring and staff qualifications. “It’s really a very intrusive process,” he observes.
It’s not just yeshivos that are concerned about the new guidelines. Non public schools from across the spectrum, including Catholic and Muslim schools, are also uneasy about the added oversight. “They all have expressed concern about this,” says Zweibel. “And they will work with us if they have to. But at the end of the day it’s pretty clear that it will make the largest impact on us.”
What if a school refuses to comply with the guidelines? The schools will lose access to state services like textbooks, special education services, and transportation. Parents would be notified that by the State that they are sending their children to an illegal and non compliant school.
The dust hasn’t yet settled on these new developments and the guidelines are still being studied and evaluated.
“It’s too soon to discuss this in a public arena,” says Zweibel when asked what the Agudah’s response will be. “There are a few options and all kinds of possibilities.” Agudath Israel has scheduled a meeting with yeshiva leaders to address the situation. “The goal,” explains Schick, “is that all yeshivos should act in a coordinated way.”
The hope is that the Commissioner will recognize limudei kodesh education for what it is. And recognize that this is a vibrant, law abiding, flourishing community with a sound educational system that all are overwhelmingly proud of. “We can’t allow a rule that no yeshiva can comply with,” says Schick. “We have to figure out how to deal with this.”
What’s most disconcerting right now, he adds, is that the state has imposed requirements that are clearly impossible to maintain. “It’s terrible to just create a set of regulations that we obviously can’t comply with and that puts our entire community on the wrong side of the law.”