JTA — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had detailed knowledge about a delayed report on yeshivas that did not meet state standards when he lobbied Orthodox Jewish leaders to help him win continued control over the city’s public schools.
“We have made clear that when we do issue a report it will be gentle and cite progress (assuming progress continues),” a top aide told him in a 2017 email outlining what he should know when lobbying the Orthodox leaders.
The revelation came in emails among de Blasio, his aides and the city Department of Education first reported by The New York Post, which obtained them through a Freedom of Informational Law request.
The emails shed light on crucial questions surrounding the city’s investigation into a 2015 complaint charging that dozens of yeshivas in Brooklyn were not teaching math, science, English and history as required by state law: What was de Blasio’s role in its delayed report and mild findings?
The city announced that it would release the results of its investigation in 2017 but did not do so until December 2019, when it found that just two of the 28 yeshivas investigated were providing “a substantially equivalent” education as required by law. A city investigation found that the mayor was aware of “political horse trading” that included an offer to delay the report, though he had not “personally authorized” its delay.
The emails obtained by the Post illustrate what those dealings looked like. They show that in June 2017, the mayor made phone calls to two top Orthodox Jewish leaders, lobbying them to ask state lawmakers to stop blocking passage of the law to extend mayoral control.
He was instructed to make the calls by a top aide, who said the mayor could cite “the curriculum issue” as well as several other ways he had supported Orthodox Jewish schools when making his case. De Blasio asked for more information about that issue, saying “I’m flying too blind here.”
Another aide responded with additional details. Among them, that aide wrote, “We have made clear that when we do issue a report it will be gentle and cite progress (assuming progress continues).”
The organization that filed the complaints that triggered the investigation against 39 yeshivas in Brooklyn for not meeting state standards, Young Advocates for Fair Education, or Yaffed, told the Post that the new emails showed that de Blasio had “abused his power” by stalling the investigation.
The two lawmakers who halted their opposition to extending the mayor’s control over city schools in exchange for the delay of the yeshiva report were State Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, and then-Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican.
Felder had been withholding support in order to include in the state’s budget bill an amendment that would exempt yeshivas from providing an “equivalent” education to public schools, allowing them to spend less time on secular subjects compared to religious instruction.
Since the investigation into the yeshivas concluded, several of the schools missed a January deadline to show how they planned to make required changes. Now, of course, the schools are closed, along with all schools across the state, because of the coronavirus pandemic.