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New York gives final approval to new rules regulating secular studies in yeshivas

Legislation will boost oversight of non-public schools, require lessons in core subjects, in measure fiercely opposed for years by ultra-Orthodox communities

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Members of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities hold a protest before a Board of Regents meeting to vote on new requirements that private schools teach English, math science and history to high school students outside the New York State Education Department Building in Albany, New York, September 12, 2022. (Will Waldron/The Albany Times Union via AP)
Members of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities hold a protest before a Board of Regents meeting to vote on new requirements that private schools teach English, math science and history to high school students outside the New York State Education Department Building in Albany, New York, September 12, 2022. (Will Waldron/The Albany Times Union via AP)

NEW YORK — New York State officials on Tuesday issued final approval to rules that will regulate secular education in non-public schools, after a years-long battle over curriculum that is a major point of contention for ultra-Orthodox communities in New York.

The state Education Department’s Board of Regents, which supervises education in New York, gave unanimous approval to the regulations in the state capital Albany. A subcommittee passed the rules without debate on Monday after the Education Department proposed the final regulations last week. The rules will go into effect at the end of the month.

The regulations will govern secular education in New York’s massive array of ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools, or yeshivas, which have fiercely resisted interference in their curriculum. State authorities have for years sought a balance between religious beliefs and values and secular education requirements in non-public schools. The rules will not regulate religious instruction.

The rules will require instruction in four core areas — mathematics, science, English language arts, and social studies. There will not be a set number of hours for instruction in those subjects.

Schools will have multiple pathways to prove compliance, including by passing a review from local education officials. To pass a review, the instructors would need to be “competent,” lessons would need to be in English and students with limited English would need to be provided instruction to gain proficiency in the language.

The regulations will apply to all of the state’s 1,800 private schools, including Catholic, Amish and elite preparatory schools, but will likely have the greatest impact on yeshivas. Some yeshivas in New York are modern Orthodox schools that provide a full secular curriculum in addition to religious instruction.

As the Regents committee on children’s education passed the rules on Monday, ultra-Orthodox protesters stood outside the State Education building bearing signs that said, “Our children are not government property,” and “We will sit in jail rather than change our children’s education.” Children at the protest wore orange prison-style jumpsuits with the words “Religious prisoner” emblazoned on the back.

Members of ultra-Orthodox communities protest before a Board of Regents meeting to vote on new requirements that private schools teach English, math, science and history, outside the New York State Education Department Building in Albany, New York, September 12, 2022. (Will Waldron/The Albany Times Union via AP)

The new regulations were approved after a New York Times investigation indicated yeshivas receive hundreds of millions in public funding, provide dismal secular education and some mete out physical punishments against students.

The investigation roiled the religious community in New York, with community representatives, politicians and other defenders of yeshivas accusing the newspaper of unfairly targeting Jewish schools.

Critics of the yeshiva system say the schools fail to provide adequate instruction in secular subjects, including English and math, leaving graduates unprepared to enter the workforce or mainstream society.

Proponents of the system say the schools are the foundations of successful communities, that students are well educated, in class longer than public school students each day, and that government meddling is an infringement on religious protections.

The passing of the new rules followed a lengthy process involving state authorities and community stakeholders who will be affected by the regulations.

New York State mandates all children in non-public schools receive instruction that is “substantially equivalent” to education at nearby public schools. The definition of the term, and the law’s enforcement, have been a source of ongoing controversy surrounding the yeshivas. The Education Department has been struggling with how to regulate and enforce substantial equivalency for years.

To prove compliance with the new rules, non-public schools will need to begin the process by December 1, 2023. Reviews would need to be completed by the end of the 2024-2025 school year, although schools would be able to request additional time.

People attend a New York State Board of Regents meeting during a vote on new requirements for private schools to teach English, math, science and history to high school students, at the Education Department Building in Albany, New York, September 12, 2022. (Will Waldron/The Albany Times Union via AP)

If a school is deemed non-compliant, it will essentially be discredited as a school and lose its funding. Parents who continue sending their children to such a school could be subject to penalties for violating compulsory education laws.

Besides a review by a local school district, the schools can prove their compliance with secular education requirements through accreditation; getting designated state approval as a private special education school; participating in an international baccalaureate program; becoming a specially registered school; or by regular assessments of student progress.

Non-public schools will also need to teach lessons required by state law at all schools, including on the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, New York State history and civics, health education including lessons on substance abuse, roadway safety, fire safety and CPR training.

Yaffed, an organization that pushes for reforms in the yeshiva system, said the new rules were a “giant step forward.”

The group said the proposed regulations were not strict enough, though, and warned that “yeshivas will likely find many loopholes.”

Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, or Pearls, a pro-yeshiva organization, condemned the new rules.

“The state’s confirmation today that it intends to dictate the curriculum and faculty at private and parochial schools is deeply disappointing,” the group said. “Those who want state control can choose public schools.”

The organization said parents would continue to choose yeshivas “with or without the blessing or support of state leaders in Albany.”

Illustrative: A man walks by school bus with Yiddish signage in Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York City, January 1, 2014. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Education Department released a draft of the new regulations in March and opened the rules for public comment until May. State officials said they had received and reviewed 350,000 comments from the public about the draft regulations.

New York politicians who have courted the Jewish vote, including former mayor Bill de Blasio, have been accused of turning a blind eye to yeshivas for political gain.

New York politicians gave mixed signals following The New York Times report and the release of the new regulations.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, said he was “not concerned” about The New York Times investigation’s findings about yeshiva academics, but said the use of corporal punishments in schools was “not acceptable.”

He confirmed that an investigation into the issue was moving forward.

“That’s what the city has to do,” he said. “We’re going to make sure every child receives a quality education in this city.”

New York Governor Kathy Hochul said the issue was outside of her office’s purview.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, who is Jewish, condemned the new regulations, saying, “This is a dangerous road the state is going down.”

As of 2020, there were around 160,000 students studying at about 450 yeshivas in New York State. Yaffed has projected that by 2030, 30 percent of Brooklyn schoolchildren will be ultra-Orthodox, nearly all of whom study in yeshivas.

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