Private and religious schools that don’t provide instruction substantially equivalent to New York state’s public schools will be threatened with loss of funding for textbooks, transportation and other services under new state Education Department rules released Tuesday.
The guidelines released Tuesday apply to all private schools but could have the greatest impact on ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools, called yeshivas, that critics have accused of providing little or no instruction in secular subjects like English and math.
The pro-yeshiva group Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools (PEARLS) said it worries local school districts may use these guidelines “as license to intrude into the fundamental working and mission of religious schools.”
The group said in a statement, “Any attempt to impose uniformity on the almost 1,800 nonpublic schools in New York State, however well-intentioned, is only going to succeed if it appropriately accounts for the uniqueness of our schools and our educational system.”
Under the guidelines, staff members from local school districts will visit each nonpublic school once every five years and will determine whether the schools are providing enough instruction in required subjects including English, math, social studies and science.
A bill pushed through the state legislature last spring by state Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat who has caucused with Republicans, puts ultra-Orthodox yeshivas under the authority of the state rather than local education officials.
Yeshiva critics say the law waters down enforcement, but state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said local education officials will still be charged with visiting the schools that are subject to the so-called Felder amendment and will pass on their findings to the state.
Naftuli Moster, whose group YAFFED filed a federal lawsuit over the Felder amendment, said Tuesday’s announcement by the state Education Department won’t affect the lawsuit.
“While these revised guidelines do not address the unconstitutionality of the April 2018 Felder Amendment to the New York Compulsory Education Law, they are important to help continue the dialogue we must have to truly reform the system,” he said in a statement.
The initial round of school reviews will start in the 2018-2019 school year and will conclude by December 2020, Elisa said.
Schools that are flouting the state law requiring substantially equivalent instruction will be given a timeline to reach compliance, Elia said.
If a school is still not in compliance, government-funded services like textbooks and transportation could be withheld, and students would ultimately be directed to go to another school or be declared truant, Elia said.
The new state guidelines come as New York City officials have been bogged down in a protracted review of 30 yeshivas in the city. The city Department of Education says six high schools have refused to let its inspectors in.
Department spokesman Will Mantell said that in light of the new guidelines, city educators will prioritize visiting the schools that have blocked access and may make additional visits to the 24 schools that they have visited so far.
“We welcome the guidance and will work aggressively to implement it,” Mantell said.
Elia said “there obviously would be consequences” if schools don’t let local education officials in. “If access is not allowed, certainly a determination that a school is providing substantially equivalent instruction cannot be made,” she said.
Full PEARLS Statement on guidance issued by the State Education Department:
We are still reviewing the nearly 100 pages of material released this afternoon by the State Education Department. Any attempt to impose uniformity on the almost 1,800 nonpublic schools in New York State, however well-intentioned, is only going to succeed if it appropriately accounts for the uniqueness of our schools and our educational system.
The guidelines released by SED accomplish several important things. They acknowledge that religious schools are and will remain different from public schools in curricula, mission, emphasis and instructional approaches. They expressly permit schools to satisfy course requirements by the incorporation of state learning standards into the syllabi for other courses. They direct local school districts to interpret course and instruction requirements with flexibility and inclusiveness, and that the reviews should focus on the opportunity to acquire core skills and to make academic progress. And they explicitly recognize the constitutional rights of parents to choose religious education for their children and to guide that education.
But it also delegates responsibility for the evaluation of nonpublic schools to the local school districts. That alone is reason for concern, especially if local school districts use these guidelines and the assessments they require as license to intrude into the fundamental working and mission of religious schools. We expect that the training SED will be providing to local school districts before any assessments are conducted will be quite clear about the limitations of the school district’s authority to alter the emphasis of religious schools and religious education.
We are particularly concerned that these guidelines subject the existence of every religious and independent school in New York State to a vote of a local school board. There is simply no reason to empower political actors to vote to override the equivalence findings of the district’s professional staff.
The yeshivas have been subject to a sustained campaign of misinformation and harassment, including false assertions that they failed to provide access. Today’s guidelines will encourage further deviation from the truth in pursuit of political goals.
At the end of World War II, New York had approximately 5,000 yeshiva students, and there were fewer than 7,000 students in the United States receiving a yeshiva education. Today, there are 165,000 students in New York yeshivas, and more than 300,000 nationwide. That has sparked the rebirth of Jewish life in the United States, and is responsible for the continuity of Jewish practice, tradition and learning. The Jewish people thrive in the United States because of our Jewish schools, not the other way around.