Jewish Community Leads Fight Against NY’s Latest Push for Greater Private School Control

Jewish Community Leads Fight Against NY’s Latest Push for Greater Private School Control
School buses are seen parked in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park in New York City on Oct. 6, 2020. (Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)
Alex Newman

New York State is considering far-reaching new controls over private schools to make them “substantially equivalent” to public schools, sparking concerns among advocates of religious liberty and parental rights.

Under the proposal, students at private schools the state does not approve of could, legally at least, be declared “truant.” That would put parents at risk of being jailed while forcing children into public schools.

Especially alarmed have been parts of the Jewish community—in particular various Orthodox leaders and groups—that would be most affected. They say traditional Jewish schools, known as “yeshivas,” are in the crosshairs of the state and the activists pushing the measures.

Hundreds of thousands of students could be affected under the plan if officials move ahead with it later this year.

“We’re concerned with the idea of the state being the arbiter of how private schools should be run,” said Chief of Staff Avrohom Weinstock with Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization that works closely with yeshivas.

Agudath, one of the leading forces opposing the proposed regulations, focuses on civil rights and ensuring that Orthodox Jews can freely practice their religion. But the organization says this battle should concern everyone.

“These regulations being proposed now have a lot of concerning language,” Weinstock told The Epoch Times in a phone interview. “Then there’s the big picture: Here’s what they are doing now, what does it mean for the future? Are parents in charge of their children, or is the state?”

Multiple Orthodox leaders and rabbis battling the proposal said that it represents a threat to the Jewish way of life and even to the community’s survival as a distinct religious group. They also warned that the plan could affect Christian schools eventually, too.

One of the key leaders of the opposition, Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, spoke out against the plan at a rally last week convened by the Central Rabbinical Union of the United States and Canada outside the New York State Education Department in Albany.

Pointing to the thousands in attendance, Shapiro noted that the state’s Jewish community was doing very well—and that its traditional education system was a big part of the reason for that.

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” the prominent rabbi and author told The Epoch Times in a series of phone interviews. “The government should not be involved in religious institutions’ curriculum.”

“Just as they have no right to tell me as a rabbi what to teach in my synagogue, they have no right to tell us what to teach in our schools,” he said. “It’s wrong for the government to be involved.”

At the rally, Shapiro said that even if Jews wanted to change their educational curriculum, they are not authorized to, as it is divinely mandated. He also promised to “put our children first” if “God forbid, the regulations pass.”

Echoing Shapiro and other Jewish leaders who spoke, Jews at the rally held signs arguing that the “substantial equivalency” requirement was an “attack on religious freedom.”

Outside experts involved in education policy also told The Epoch Times that the move represents a threat to the rights of parents, educational liberty, and constitutionally protected religious freedoms.

A Jewish man and his three sons walk down a street in a Jewish quarter in Williamsburg Brooklyn in New York City on April 24, 2019. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
A Jewish man and his three sons walk down a street in a Jewish quarter in Williamsburg Brooklyn in New York City on April 24, 2019. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

The Proposed Rules

The regulations, being considered by the New York State Board of Regents that oversees education in the state, are being pursued under a state law requiring that non-public education be “substantially equivalent” to that provided in government schools.

The language in the statute dates back to over a century ago, when the state was seeking to regulate Catholic schools at a time when public schools were de facto non-denominational protestant. But it has always been loosely interpreted, and the statute has never been vigorously enforced.

Because traditional yeshivas often do not teach the same subjects that public schools and many other private schools do, they would face tough scrutiny under the new measure.

Officials, however, said they would respect diversity and religious communities under the plan.

“Our state is rich in diversity, from our cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds to the languages we speak,” said New York Board of Regents Chancellor Lester W. Young, Jr. “These differences are assets that should be embraced so we can learn from each other.

“The Board and I are committed to ensuring students who attend school in settings consistent with their religious and cultural beliefs and values receive the education to which they are legally entitled,” he added.

Education Commissioner Betty Rosa argued that the proposed rules were merely an effort to comply with state law.

“We have an obligation under the law to ensure all students receive an education that enables them to fulfill their potential and teaches them the skills and knowledge needed to contribute to society and participate in civic life,” she said, adding that public feedback was reflected in the proposed rules.

While there are numerous controversial provisions in the regulations, among the most concerning to critics have been the implications of a school failing to be considered “substantially equivalent” by the state.

If such a determination is made by the state, “the nonpublic school shall no longer be deemed a school which provides compulsory education fulfilling the requirements of Article 65 of the Education Law.”

Under state law, that would make children “truant.” Parents of a “truant” child who is not meeting compulsory education requirements could be charged, prosecuted, fined, and even jailed. The children, meanwhile, would be forced into a public school or approved private one.

Children line up as they enter a public school in New York City on Dec. 7, 2020. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Children line up as they enter a public school in New York City on Dec. 7, 2020. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Many Jewish parents and community leaders have indicated that they would disobey if necessary, arguing that their obligation to obey God supersedes their duty to obey government, as explained in their scriptures.

While experts say the state would likely hesitate to jail parents, it is a real possibility under the law.

Another major concern is that schools could be reported to the state by anyone, even if that person does not have a connection to the school. Critics said it opens the door to major abuses by those hostile to Jews or their yeshivas.

The New York State Department of Education and the Board of Regents did not respond to questions from The Epoch Times about the proposed policy or the consequences of violating it. Instead, they sent links to the proposed regulations and public statements made by officials.

Support for the Measure

Not all Jews are opposed to the state’s proposal. In fact, some of the leading figures involved in the battle think government regulation of the yeshivas is long overdue.

Naftuli Moster, executive director of Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), told The Epoch Times that he was “hardly given an education” at his yeshiva growing up.

“My secular education was basically an afterschool program,” he said. “We never learned science or history or the Constitution or the Founding Fathers.”

According to Moster, widely viewed as the leading advocate for the proposed regulations, Jewish children need more instruction in “secular” subjects to be able to live in today’s society.

“Any effort to portray this as trying to turn yeshivas into failing government schools are false,” he said, clearly disturbed by the characterization and demonization of YAFFED’s efforts by his co-religionists. “This is not a government takeover of private education.”

Advocates of more government oversight and regulation of yeshivas and private schools are not trying to force controversial notions of gender and sexuality into the curriculum, Moster said.

“We just want them to learn what a molecule is—really basic stuff,” he added, blasting as “complete nonsense” accusations that the measures violate religious freedom or would undermine religious communities.

In 2019, when the state asked yeshivas to spend at least 3.5 hours of instruction time per day on “secular subjects,” the Jewish schools opposed it, Moster said. “Is that too much to ask?” he wondered. “They are not entitled to keep complaining anymore.”

Over 50 rabbis and dozens of Jewish leaders from New York sent a letter to the New York State Education Department urging it to proceed with the new rules.

“Judaic studies alone is not enough,” they wrote, slamming as an “injustice” what they argued was a lack of secular education in yeshivas. “While our Torah and traditions are enriching, they are not a substitute for formal education in English, mathematics, science, and social studies.”

“Together we call on the New York State Education Department to enforce education standards in Haredi [Orthodox Jewish] yeshivas,” they added. “This is the only way to ensure that our Jewish brothers and sisters are granted the opportunity they deserve to gain essential skills to support their growth into the next generation of the Jewish people.”

Students in a classroom in New York City on Sept. 27, 2021. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
Students in a classroom in New York City on Sept. 27, 2021. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Opponents Counter the Narrative

Agudath’s Weinstock, though, said Moster and those supporting his position do not represent the views of most Jews.

In fact, he pointed out that of the 135,000 comments that have been submitted to authorities, just a tiny minority support the state’s efforts. A similar ratio was observed the last time the state proposed the regulation of yeshivas. The final day for public comment is May 31.

The Rabbinical Union, which organized the rally in Albany to oppose the measure, secured tens of thousands of signatures on a petition urging the state to stop the proposal.

“People and parents are really coming out en mass to protest the idea that private schools should be controlled by the state,” noted Weinstock, whose organization defends religious liberty for Jews and works closely with yeshivas.

The proposed rules, he said, would make New York’s private schools “the most regulated in the country by far, as far as the level of control they are proposing.”

“When setting up a regime for the state to control private schools, you are opening the door for anything to come in later,” he said.

Parents have a prior right to raise their children, and they should be given “a lot of deference in how they choose to do that,” Weinstock said.

Parents who do not value religious education can choose other schools for their children, he added.

“This is an effort to homogenize private schools with public education,” continued Weinstock. “If I wanted to send my kid to a public school, I could do that for free, I don’t have to work two jobs to afford a private school.”

Additionally, the religious education provided by yeshivas, which Weinstock described as “challenging mentally and intellectually,” is central to the Jewish community, he said.

“Our yeshiva system goes back thousands of years, our formalized system of learning and teaching,” he said, noting that building yeshivas was the first undertaking of the Jews arriving in America after World War II. “This is key to our survival.”

“We believe religious freedom is critical, so to see this happening in a state like New York is really frightening,” he added. “Are we going back in time? We know our history, we know what has happened to our people. This threat to our religious freedom has shaken people up. There’s a nerve that has been touched here, the idea that the state will come in and decide what we can teach, what we can’t teach.”

Pedestrians walk past the Yeshiva Kehilath Yakov School in the South Williamsburg neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on April 9, 2019. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Pedestrians walk past the Yeshiva Kehilath Yakov School in the South Williamsburg neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on April 9, 2019. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Yeshivas Not the Problem

While critics argue that yeshivas do not teach much English, science, math, or civics, supporters of the Jewish schools say they have worked very well for centuries, if not longer. Some trace them all the way back to Moses and Mount Sinai.

Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools (PEARLS), a leading force in opposing the regulations, has consistently argued that yeshivas do, in fact, successfully prepare children for career and life. That is why parents choose them, the group contends.

According to Rabbi Shapiro, who spoke at the Albany rally, the state should actually be studying yeshivas and the Jewish community to see how they have achieved such success.

“There is no reason for these regulations,” Shapiro told The Epoch Times. “The Orthodox Jewish community is doing just fine in terms of being productive members of society. We’ve been in this country for generations—four generations we’ve been here—and our neighborhoods are clean, they are middle to upper class.”

The children do well as adults, too. “There are students from our yeshivas who are CEOs and billionaires to average people to poor people like anywhere else,” he said. “But there is not a single Orthodox Jewish neighborhood that’s unsafe to walk in or a single Orthodox school that needs a metal detector.”

Graduates of yeshivas also do as well or better than average Americans in business, added Shapiro.

That is partly, at least, from having learned not just the “three Rs” (Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic), but also problem-solving skills, collaboration, teamwork, and more in yeshiva.

In fact, standard methods of schooling used in public schools have long been shown to be inadequate for preparing young people for the workplace, argued Shapiro, referencing an article in Entrepreneur magazine headlined “Why Traditional Schooling Can't Prepare Students for the Modern Workplace.”

While it is true that many do not emphasize traditional academic subjects, and yeshivas are not all the same, the religious studies do provide critical skills that other schools often do not, according to Shapiro.

“In religious studies, students are encouraged to come up with new answers that teachers may not have thought of; even new questions,” he said. “You’re taught that a good question is an accomplishment, that an original answer is an extra accomplishment. This is the nature of Talmudic studies.”

In any case, academics aside, yeshiva education is a religious obligation for many Orthodox Jews, Shapiro said.

“The curriculum that we have in our religious schools—the Hasidic schools especially—has been handed down by tradition for centuries,” he explained. “The curriculum itself is a religious mandate. Changing it is against our religion. The subject matter they want us to teach is not acceptable.”

A group of rabbis had the opportunity to meet with some members of the Board of Regents. One of them, Rabbi Chaim Flohr, who serves as dean for multiple Jewish educational institutions in New York, urged officials not to put the Orthodox community into such a tough situation.

"We obey God and the government, in that order,” he told the officials, asking them not to "force us into a position of noncompliance" with the law.

"We are loyal citizens of the state," he added. "We pay an exorbitant school tax to support a public education system from which we do not benefit much. We are not asking for anything in return. We did not come here today to seek any government funds. We came to ask to be left alone, and be allowed to educate our children the way God has commanded us to.”

Broader Threat

For now, the threat to the independence of private schools in New York is mostly limited to Jewish yeshivas. But numerous experts and attorneys explained that once the proverbial camel’s nose was under the tent, Christian schools would eventually be in the crosshairs as well.

A leading expert in the field, Research Fellow Jason Bedrick with the Center for Education Policy at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, told The Epoch Times in phone and email interviews that the proposed regulations were an attack on parental rights, educational freedom, and religious liberty.

“It’s one thing for the state to intervene in clear cases of educational neglect,” said Bedrick, a Jew who co-edited a book on the yeshiva controversy titled “Religious Liberty and Education: A Case Study of Yeshivas vs. New York.”

Students in a classroom in New York City on Sept. 27, 2021. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
Students in a classroom in New York City on Sept. 27, 2021. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

In this case, however, “the standard is ‘substantial equivalency,’ an ambiguous and ill-defined term but one that strongly implies that private schools should more or less be doing the same thing that district schools do,” he said.

“Of course, many if not most parents seeking private education are looking for something substantially different from what the district schools are doing,” added Bedrick, noting that policymakers had been pursuing dramatic interference in schools that would compromise the wishes of parents and schools.

Ironically, there is no evidence that children in government-controlled schools do better than Jewish students in Yeshivas, he said.

Bedrick also pointed out that the leading advocate of the regulations, YAFFED’s Moster, lamented in media interviews about never having learned what a molecule was during his yeshiva education.

“He then went on to graduate summa cum laude and get a Master’s degree,” observed Bedrick, saying Moster’s education helped him “develop the skills and habits of the heart necessary to sit for long hours, deeply engaged with complicated texts, required to succeed in other fields of study.”

The “substantial equivalency” standard being pursued in New York would give the government “tremendous power to interfere with the autonomy of private schools, including religious schools,” warned Bedrick.

“Interfering in this system is the tip of the spear, and we can see where that leads by looking at other nations in the West that have gone down that path,” the education policy expert added.

Even though the state is not currently cracking down on Christian schools or homeschoolers, the same arguments could be used to do so, as some European governments are already doing, he said.

“Governments in Europe are now forcing private schools to teach particular values and ideas favored by the governing elite, even when they are significantly at odds with the deeply held beliefs of members of certain religions,” concluded Bedrick. “If the yeshivas lose this fight, we’ll be one step further down the dark road that parts of Europe are already traveling.”

The New York State Education Department will review public comments over the summer.

Unless major changes are made to the proposed regulations, the Board of Regents is likely to vote on them this fall.

Alex Newman is a freelance contributor to The Epoch Times. Mr. Newman is an award-winning international journalist, educator, author, and consultant who co-wrote the book “Crimes of the Educators: How Utopians Are Using Government Schools to Destroy America’s Children.” He writes for diverse publications in the United States and abroad.
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