New York issues final proposal for secular education in yeshivas amid long dispute

State education department reviews 350,000 comments after releasing draft rules earlier this year; Board of Regents approval set for Monday

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

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City, September 14, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City, September 14, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)

NEW YORK — The New York State Education Department on Friday proposed final regulations for secular education in non-public schools, part of an ongoing, years-long battle over curriculum that is a major point of contention for Orthodox Jews in New York.

The regulations will govern secular education in New York’s massive array of Jewish day 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 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. 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 non-Jewish schools as well, including Catholic, Amish and elite preparatory schools.

The regulations would not regulate religious instruction.

The final proposal followed a lengthy process involving state authorities and community stakeholders who will be affected by the regulations.

The new rules will be discussed at a Board of Regents monthly meeting on Monday. The board carries out general supervision of education in the state and needs to give final approval for the regulations.

In this September 20, 2013 file photo, children and adults cross a street in front of a school bus in Borough Park, a neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York that is home to many ultra-Orthodox Jewish families. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

New York State mandates that 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.

The proposed regulations provide multiple pathways for non-public schools to demonstrate they are providing adequate secular education. Non-public schools would also be able to undergo a review by a local school authority to prove compliance.

For both options, non-public schools would 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.

If a school is deemed non-compliant, it will essentially be discredited as a school, lose its funding and its students will be considered truant.

Besides a review by a local school district, the schools could 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 would 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 Friday, “Don’t lose sight of what the yeshivas are fighting against: basic standards to ensure children are learning English, math, science and social studies.”

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

Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, or Pearls, a pro-yeshiva organization, condemned Friday’s Education Department announcement.

“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.”

Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, said, “The specter of government overriding the will of parents and dictating how and what we teach in our private, religious schools is frightening.”

The Education Department released a draft of the new regulations in March and opened the rules for public comment until May. The department reviewed the comments over the summer and made revisions before presenting them on Friday. The final proposal is largely the same as the draft released in March, with some technical clarifications.

State officials said Friday they had received and reviewed 350,000 comments from the public about the draft regulations.

The New York Times plans to release an investigation into yeshivas in the coming days, which has already elicited harsh criticism from Jewish community leaders.

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.

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

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

Illustrative: A Jewish area of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, on April 24, 2019. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

As of 2020, there were around 160,000 students studying at about 450 yeshivas in New York State. Yaffed, an organization pushing for reforms in the yeshiva system, has projected that by 2030, 30 percent of Brooklyn schoolchildren will be ultra-Orthodox, nearly all of whom study in yeshivas. Non-public New York schools receive hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding.

The Education Department proposed substantial equivalency regulations in 2019, drawing over 140,000 public comments, mostly negative, forcing it to re-evaluate. In 2020, the Board of Regents told the department to hold discussions on the regulations with stakeholders again to draft the new regulations. There were delays afterward due to the pandemic.

The Education Department held meetings regarding the regulations with parents, students, school representatives, Orthodox Jewish groups, critics of the yeshiva system, supporters, and Amish school leaders.

In 2019, a New York City investigation of 28 yeshivas found that only two of them provided “substantially equivalent” education to secular public schools.

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