“Null and Void” Judge Asked to Postpone Guidelines Cancels Them Entirely

In a resounding victory for yeshivos and other private schools, a judge who earlier this month was asked to temporarily postpone invasive state guidelines on nonpublic schools instead canceled them entirely, ending for now the threat of government interference into the yeshiva system.

Judge Christina L. Ryba of the Albany Supreme Court issued her ruling on the Thursday morning before Pesach, declaring the guidelines that mandated nearly five hours of secular studies a day to be “null and void.”

“JUSTICE IS SERVED!” tweeted Councilman Kalman Yeger when the news arrived.

Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein tweeted that the guidelines “were unjust and overstepped the bounds of the [education] department. The ruling … that struck the rules down reaffirms what we knew about the legality and is a victory for all non-public school students.”

The state education department still has time to file an appeal of Ryba’s ruling, said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, which was a party to the lawsuit. As of Tuesday, however, it has not done so.

The agency released a statement shortly after the ruling saying, “We are reviewing the court’s decision and will determine the appropriate next steps.” Within 24 hours of the ruling, however, it removed all documents from its website that pertained to the guidelines, adding that “all currently scheduled training sessions have been canceled and no action should be taken under the Updated Guidance and associated materials.”

As was the situation since the guidelines were released in November, yeshiva administrators and advocates are befuddled as to where they stand. Are the old guidelines the department has said were unclear now in effect? What about the two Brooklyn yeshivos that had been scheduled for inspection next week?

Rabbi Zwiebel said that he expects the department to make its next move sometime this week.

“But as far as I’m aware, and as far as Avi Schick is aware as of [Sunday] evening,” Rabbi Zwiebel said, “they have not yet tipped their hand.”

The yeshiva advocacy group PEARLS, Catholic Conference and independent schools who separately sued the state Education Department and Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, had filed for a temporary halt to the guidelines at a hearing three days before. They were buoyed at Ryba’s persistent questioning of the state’s attorney, hammering him over claims that the guidance was over 100 years old and not novel, as the private schools were saying.

The three groups were pleasantly surprised when instead of just issuing a short-term halt to the guidelines until the case is heard in court, Ryba canceled them altogether. She said that to impose such burdensome rules required a much more rigorous process, including holding public hearings and allowing the public to weigh in on them.

None of these were done here, Ryba said. Therefore, “the new guidelines are ‘rules’ that were not implemented in compliance with the [law] and are hereby nullified.”

She cited language in the guidelines that dictated when local school boards must begin inspecting the schools as well as language that insists “all” schools need to be visited. There is also an extensive checklist mandating how many hours must be devoted to study of specific subjects.

All this, Ryba decided, was language consistent with rules that an unelected agency had no power to enact.

The ruling many not be the end of road for yeshivos, however. The education department may choose to impose the guidelines through the regular rulemaking process, or ask the legislature to pass a law.

“In view of the foregoing findings,” Ryba wrote in her decision, dated April 17, “the Court need not address petitioners’ respective requests for a preliminary injunction, nor need the Court consider the constitutional arguments raised by petitioners.”

Rabbi Zwiebel said in a statement that the guidelines “would have wreaked havoc in many—if not most—yeshivos in New York. There is nothing more important to the yeshiva community than the independence of our educational institutions. Today’s ruling preserves that independence, retaining the parental right to make educational choices for their children, by the educators they have entrusted their children to, rather than government bureaucrats.”

In a statement, PEARLS noted that at the hearing, the state’s attorney referred to private school students as “voiceless children who are conscripted by their parents.”

The ruling, the yeshiva advocacy group declared, “stops in its tracks [the state education department’s] effort to radically transform the relationship between the State and its private schools.”

“That fundamental misperception,” it added, “that the State and not parents should set the educational and religious direction for children is what was at the core of the new guidelines. They deserved to be struck down.”