When the call went out last summer that New York’s education department was opening a 60-day public comment period to hear what people thought of its proposed regulations on private schools, skepticism was rampant. How can letters change a matter of such import, some questioned?
The answer landed with a resounding thud on Monday. The state’s Board of Regents, the independent body that oversees education, issued its first statement on the matter since 140,000 comments poured in. The memo acknowledged the “unprecedented” number of respondents, adding that staff have been working since to “review and assess these extensive comments.”
Shannon Tahoe, the education commissioner, said that the comments were “more than I have ever seen in my 13 years in the state education department—far more.”
“The process that the state has for managing comments and recording them,” Christina Coughlin, the assistant commissioner, added with a laugh, “was not designed for 140,000. So we’ll be doing that for a while.”
One participant at the meeting, Yeruchim Silber, the state director for legislative affairs for Agudath Israel, said that the meeting showed the tremendous progress made since the department attempted to ram through the new policy last year. They were stopped when a yeshiva advocacy group took them to court and a judge ordered the department to allow for public comment.
“It was clear that the huge amounts of comments submitted this past summer made a real difference,” Rabbi Silber said. “[It] just shows what determined advocacy can do. This is no time to let down our guard, we must continue to stay vigilant as this moves through the next phase.”
The next phase, Tahoe said, was to speak to the affected communities and come back with a new policy. She warned, however, that this new policy must take into account students who attend yeshivos that do not provide a substantial secular education, regardless of their religious beliefs or their status as private school students.
“We know that there are schools that are doing phenomenal jobs, and we should acknowledge that,” Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said. “We should release them with love. And then we have a small group that is not. Just like we have with our own pubs (public schools), we have to do with our nonpubs as well. The public schools and the nonpublic schools are all part of one umbrella.”
The remark that private schools are under the umbrella of the Board of Regents is the crux of the debate. Yeshivos, Catholic and other private schools have adamantly rebuffed that, saying that nonpublic schools are not under the jurisdiction of the board. The Catholic schools, the second-largest private school system in the state after yeshivos, has said it would not cooperate with the department.
“Given the wealth of comments and varying views expressed,” the report concluded, “the department will re-engage stakeholders for further discussion on the next steps toward the common goal of ensuring all children receive the instruction to which they are entitled.”
“Stakeholders” refer to people and groups who have a stake in the matter, such as Agudath Israel, which was not consulted when the previous set of regulations was formulated. They were in shock when the proposal called for as much as five hours a day of secular studies as well as granting the Regents oversight over private schools for the first time.
This time, said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, Agudah’s executive vice president, they were in the loop.
“This wasn’t a total surprise for us,” Rabbi Zweibel said. He described the fact that the department was going back to the drawing board “about the most positive that could happen.”
“I don’t think it was realistic to expect that they would read the 140,000 comments and just rip up all plans to extend oversight over the private schools,” he said. “I think we have a lot of positive to take out of this entire thing.”
He estimated that of the over 140,000 comments submitted, “95 percent were against the regulations, and 90 percent of those against came from our community.”
“That certainly strengthens our hand when we are speaking to the education department,” he said. “We are stakeholders and we’ll do our best to preserve the autonomy of our yeshivos.”
Yaffed, the group that filed the initial complaint that launched the regulations, are not stakeholders in this saga, a judge ruled last year.
The board has hired two extra staffers to review the comments and is still in middle of going through them, Tahoe said. She added, however, that it was “prudent” to divulge a pattern that was emerging from the comments the agency already went through.
At the meeting Monday, Tahoe divided the reasons commenters gave against the regulation into six categories.
Many commenters stated that the proposed regulation infringes on certain rights. Some mentioned the violation of parental rights to direct the education of their children, including moral and religious teachings. Others said that their constitutional rights of the free exercise of religion was being infringed on. Yet others said they were nervous of government overreach, when the government interferes with nonpublic schools that have a long record of achievement.
2. Religious Beliefs
Some commenters viewed the regulation as an “attack on religious traditions and education that have existed for thousands of years.” Others even said that it would force many families to move to other states or countries to seek educational opportunities for their children. Many people wrote that they will refuse to comply with the proposed regulation, particularly where it goes against their religious beliefs.
3. Risk to Nonpublic Schools
Commenters also expressed that the regulations placed too many requirements on nonpublic schools and will detract from their ability to offer unique education experiences. Many wrote that they received great educations at yeshivos that allowed them to become successful professionals. They argued with the premise that schools must teach all the subjects required by the proposed regulation. Many also noted that private schools have innovative curriculum that would be at threat if they were forced to teach all the subjects in the regulation. If the state wants yeshivos to cover additional subjects, they wrote, let the state cover these costs.
Many commenters expressed concern that the proposed regulations including a lack of clear and measurable standards for the review process. They wondered why it was necessary to spend time and money reviewing schools that are already accredited. Some suggested alternatives such as extending Board of Regents registration to all grades, reviewing only underperforming schools, or that a panel could conduct reviews instead of the local school board or authority.
5. Unnecessary Regulation
Some commenters expressed that the regulation is unnecessary because if a nonpublic school underperforms, parents have the option to pull their children out. They said that many nonpublic schools already outperform public schools, have superior curriculum and better results. They noted that parents choose religious schools notwithstanding the high tuition; if the nonpublic school underperforms, parents will pull their children out. Many said that nonpublic school students do not have the same problems as public school students with crime, homelessness and addiction.
6. Conflict Between Local School Authorities and Nonpublic Schools
Commenters expressed that the proposed regulation will cause increased tensions between LSAs and nonpublic schools.
There were some comments in support of the regulations—believed to be less than 2 percent of the total—claiming that they were necessary to ensure children receive an adequate education.
Tahoe acknowledged the difficulty in confronting the constitutional issues involved but said that the board will reach a conclusion.
“This is the one of the most difficult conversations and hardest things that this board will have to take on,” Tahoe said. “We are balancing … a person’s right to a religious education and the right to choose where a child goes with the right that the kids receive the education that they are entitled to under the law.”
Rabbi Zweibel noted that the department specifically credited the democratic process of the public comments for their change of mind. He cautioned, however, that this by no means concludes the story that has filled New York’s Jews with anxiety.
“The outcome will be, probably, that the government will assert its oversight and come up with some sort of new proposal,” he said. “Will that be something we could live with? We’ll see.”