Opinion from Gary Stern The Journal News
“It was clear that state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia was going to have a hard time producing private-school curriculum guidelines that would meet state law and satisfy the Orthodox community, especially those protective of Hasidic yeshivas.
But who could anticipate the wrath directed at Elia and her updated guidelines for enforcing that academic instruction at private schools is “substantially equivalent” to public schools? The timing of the release, just before Hanukkah, fed numerous comparisons of Elia and the state Education Department to the Syrian-Greeks, who tried (and failed) to Hellenize the Jews in the Hanukkah story.
Grand Rebbe Aharon Teitelbaum of the Satmar Hasidic movement, for one, has declared war against Elia. In a major speech before thousands of followers in Brooklyn, he said his community “will not bow down or surrender to the wicked, not even before the Commissioner of Education.”
Almost 55,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the new state guidelines and rejecting Elia’s “attempt to impose her curriculum on our yeshivas.”
Attacking from another front, the New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents, which represents about 500 Catholic schools, also rejects the new guidelines. The group opposes having Catholic school instruction reviewed by local public school officials, with whom they say they are in competition for students.
Much of the vitriol directed at Elia and “her system,” though, is way off base. Critics seem determined to ignore the reality that Elia is trying to enforce existing state law, which is her job. She did not create instructional rules for private schools; nor did she design a system to inspect what private schools teach.
But blaming her is an easy out. Comparing her to Jewish oppressors of yore is nonsense.
The simple truth is that state law — since at least 1947 — has required that academic instruction at private schools be “substantially equivalent” to what public schools teach. Section 3204 of state Education Law has also required that public school districts be responsible for making sure that private schools within their boundaries teach what they’re supposed to teach.
The law, by and large, has been ignored. Until now.
Two years ago, Elia decided to update state guidelines for enforcement of the law. Why she did so is one point of conflict. Many Orthodox critics insist she was unduly influenced by an advocacy group they don’t like, Young Advocates for Fair Education or YAFFED. State Education Department officials told me they received requests to clarify requirements by many, including public schools, private schools and BOCES.
Ruminating on Elia’s motivation is just a distraction. The law is the law, and Elia is doing the right thing, the only thing, by trying to enforce it. Wishing she would look the other way, as her predecessors did, is not a credible position.
Yeshiva advocates seemed taken back by specific requirements in the new guidance, with some worried that students in grades 5 to 8 would need 7 hours a day in secular academic instruction. State officials told me that some requirements were misunderstood and would be clarified.
Sure enough, state officials have quietly explained in recent days that certain requirements are half of what some thought. Already, there is a perception that the state is backtracking. Considering the sensitivity of this entire undertaking, the Education Department needed to handle this way better.
Assuming the requirements are settled, can the state actually enforce the 70-plus-year-old law requiring substantial equivalency? The outlook is dicey.”
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