New York proposes new rules for secular education in yeshivas, other private schools

State Education Department outlines plan for monitoring instruction in non-public schools, part of a years-long battle over religious study in massive Jewish school system

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

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

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

The proposed regulations would help govern secular education requirements 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 regulations would give non-public schools six pathways to demonstrate that they are providing sufficient education in secular subjects.

The schools could prove their compliance with secular education requirements through accreditation; participation in a state program; registering with the Board of Regents; participating in an international baccalaureate program; getting approval from the federal government; or by regular assessments of student progress. The Board of Regents carries out general supervision of education in the state.

If a non-public school does not use one of the pathways to prove they are complying with secular lesson requirements, local public local school authorities must conduct a review by the end of the 2025 school year.

The regulations will apply to non-Jewish schools as well, including Catholic, Amish and elite preparatory schools.

The new proposed regulations are open for public comment until the end of May. The Education Department will review the comments over the summer, then make revisions, or present the final regulations to the Board of Regents in the fall of 2022.

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.

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.

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.

Yaffed said it “commends” the Education Department for the draft regulations.

“The new rules provide a system of transparency in reporting processes that has been absent until now and improves the process of ensuring compliance” for non-public schools, Yaffed said in a statement, although the group warned of “several loopholes” in the new rules.

“This process has taken a long time but we are cautiously hopeful,” said group leader Naftuli Moster.

Two Orthodox organizations said the newly proposed regulations were an improvement over past suggestions, but still criticized the proposal, and said religious studies have value which is ignored by the Education Department.

Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, or PEARLS, said, “Government does not possess either the expertise or the ability to evaluate our [religious studies] classes or those that teach them, yet these regulations require local school districts to do just that.”

PEARLS said authorities had ignored requests to approve an accreditation agency that is more familiar with the yeshiva system.

Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox umbrella organization, said it was “deeply concerned” about the regulation’s potential impact on the yeshiva system. It said the regulations could force “major changes” to yeshivas that were “entirely unacceptable.”

“Nowhere in the proposed regulations is there any mention of the need to take into account the educational value of religious studies in determining substantial equivalency,” it said. “For a yeshiva to be judged on the quality of its educational program without taking into account these religious studies would make a cruel mockery of the review process.”

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 proposed on Thursday 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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