New York is poised to step up oversight of non-public schools

New York is poised to step up its oversight of private and religious schools after years of complaints that thousands of children are graduating from ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools without basic academic skills, including the ability to read English.

A Board of Regents committee unanimously approved guidelines Monday to ensure that instruction in the state’s private and religious schools is on par with that of its public schools.

The rules will apply to all of New York’s 1,800 non-public schools, but will have the biggest impact on ultra-Orthodox schools, called yeshivas, some of which provide strict religious instruction but little or no instruction in secular subjects such as English, math, science and history.

Defenders of the schools say parents have the right to send their children to programs consistent with their beliefs and traditions. As the Regents met Monday, protesters gathered outside, some with signs that read: “We will sit in jail rather than change our children’s education.”

Many yeshiva in New York state are modern orthodox schools that provide a full secular curriculum along with religious studies. But there were complaints that some yeshivas run by strictly observant Hasidic Jews did not meet basic academic standards.

A New York Times investigation published Sunday cited cases of English teachers who spoke only Yiddish to students, teachers who used corporal punishment and graduates who said they were woefully unprepared for life or work outside their communities.

Almost all Hasidic boys who took state standardized math and reading tests in 2019 failed, the report said.

A final vote is scheduled for Tuesday on new Board of Regents rules that will give private schools multiple ways to show they meet a longstanding legal mandate to provide an education that is “substantially equivalent” to that of a public school. Among the criteria is that the main courses be taught in English.

“We’re trying to obviously adhere to the law, but also create some flexibility around it,” said state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa.

State education officials have spent years trying to strike a balance. An initial set of guidelines released in 2018 was struck down by a state judge, who said they were not properly implemented. The department reviewed about 350,000 public comments after the latest proposal was published and made adjustments in response, authorities said.

“The regulation respects that parents have a constitutional right to send their children to an independent school and that we respect the worldviews of their schools and communities,” said Assistant Commissioner Christina Coughlin.

The group Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, which represents Yeshiva, said families choose to pay for private or religious schools because they believe in their educational approach.

“A government checklist, concocted by lawyers and enforced by bureaucrats, hinders rather than promotes education,” the group said in an email. “Parents in New York have been choosing a yeshiva education for more than 120 years and are proud of the successful results and will continue to do the same, with or without the blessing or support of state leaders in Albany.”

Under the rules, a school can demonstrate equivalency, for example, by using state-approved assessments or by operating a high school registered with the Board of Regents. It may also be controlled by the local school district.

Groups representing Roman Catholic and Christian schools said they were confident their schools met essentially equivalent standards.

Naftuli Moster, who founded a group to improve secular standards in yeshivas, said he was concerned that schools would use the issue of cultural sensitivity to exploit loopholes without clearer guidance on how to enforce the regulations, which is expected to face the state in the next few months.

“How you teach it or what you incorporate into the teaching is not what matters,” Moster said by phone. “It’s objective if you teach science. There is no Jewish science. It’s objective whether you teach social studies or not.”

Private schools that fall short of the threshold will have time to adjust their instruction, state education officials said.

But those who might refuse to comply could lose state funding and their status as a school with the state. Parents who continue to send their children to such a school may be in violation of the state’s compulsory education law, which requires that children between the ages of six and 16 be provided with a program of instruction, whether in a public school or elsewhere.

Daniel Morton Bentley, a lawyer for the state Department of Education, said Friday that much of the public pushback has focused on “philosophical opposition to state regulation of nonpublic schools,” which he said is required by law and not changed by the action of the Regents.

Public school districts must complete initial reviews of non-public schools within their boundaries by the end of the 2024-25 school year.

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Thompson reported from Buffalo, NY Associated Press reporter Michael Hill contributed from Albany, NY

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