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New York State vows to update rules governing secular education in yeshivas

Education Department says it will enact new regulations on ‘substantial equivalence’ in non-public schools, indicating possible changes for ultra-Orthodox in 2022-2023 school year

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Illustrative: 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/Bebeto Matthews, File)
Illustrative: 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/Bebeto Matthews, File)

The New York State Education Department on Monday announced a plan to update regulations governing education in non-public schools in the coming year, which could have major implications for the state’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious schools.

Critics of the religious schools, or yeshivas, applauded the announcement, while supporters condemned it.

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 the source of ongoing controversy surrounding the yeshivas.

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.

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

Monday’s announcement said the State Education Department will release updated regulations on secular education in non-public schools in the coming months. The regulations will be presented to state officials, then released for public comment, review and revision.

The final regulations will be enacted in the spring or summer of 2022, the statement said.

“In the 2022-2023 school year we may see changes on the ground. That’s a big step,” said Naftuli Moster, the head of Yaffed, a New York non-profit working to reform the yeshiva system.

The enforcement mechanism the state will use is not clear, but the statement announced four possible “pathways to demonstrate equivalence,” including accreditation, registration, demonstration of student outcomes and site visits to schools.

The state said its goals are “to recognize and support the unique culture and beliefs that form the foundation of our nonpublic schools; and to comply with the law.”

The new law will apply to non-Jewish schools as well, including Catholic, Amish and elite preparatory schools. Monday’s announcement followed consultations between Education Department staff and stakeholders in the non-public school system, including parents, students, administrators and religious leaders.

The Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, a New York nonprofit, criticized the announcement, saying, “The push for a stringent definition of ‘substantial equivalence’ against private schools comes, comically, at a time when standards are loosened for public schools.”

“Without this change, Yeshivas are in good standing with education law so why create a problem?” the group said.

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