“The New York State Education Department is again looking at how to enforce state law requiring that academic instruction in private schools be “substantially equivalent” to public schools, holding virtual meetings this week that focused on the Hudson Valley and Brooklyn.
Those are the places where the issue of education in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas has fueled bitter disputes, with leaders of large Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish populations fighting to preserve what they see as educational freedom as activists say some yeshivas fail to prepare boys for a productive future and civic involvement.
Earlier proposed guidelines were struck down in court and proposed regulations were put on the backburner by the state after intense opposition.
A state education official said this week that such guidelines would be issued in 2021.
The law that demands “education equivalency” in private schools is not new — it has been on the books since 1895. But enforcement had largely been ignored until several years ago, when advocates highlighted the lack of secular education in some Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jewish yeshivas.
Several yeshiva graduates themselves — including New City resident Naftuli Moster — have pointed to the struggles they faced because their educations left them deficient in core subjects, including English, math and science. Moster founded YAFFED, or Young Advocates for Fair Education, an advocacy group pushing the state to act.
“We appreciate the time the New York State Education Department has dedicated to this issue,” Moster said on Wednesday. “We cannot allow the status quo to continue, and we urge the State Education Department to finalize the enforcement mechanism of this longstanding law to ensure students are getting the education they are legally entitled to by the state of New York.”
Groups that support private education say that those schools provide quality education and the state shouldn’t quash religious freedom.
Among the groups advocating for yeshiva independence has been Agudath Israel, an umbrella organization for Orthodox Judaism that was among groups that successfully challenged Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s COVID cluster zone religious gathering limits in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Social media commentary among Orthodox Jewish supporters has included pledges of defiance if the state institutes oversight that could impede yeshiva education. A tweet by Satmar Headquarters (@HQSatmar) pledged “NO change whatsoever in the education curriculums!”
At least one participant in this week’s state meeting for the Hudson Valley expected little progress in advancing the long-stalled equivalency measures.
“I was totally underwhelmed because they were just going through the motions of holding a hearing,” said Oscar Cohen of the Spring Valley NAACP. “No new ground was broken.”
Cohen, who was part of a successful federal lawsuit against East Ramapo school district that challenged the election system for electing board members, said he was in a group with about a half-dozen other people. One was Harry Grossman, president of East Ramapo’s school board.
Grossman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Most of the discussion focused on defending the quality of (most) religious education,” Cohen said.
This week’s discussions were held via ZOOM due to pandemic safety protocols and were not open to the public or media.”
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