New York proposes new rules for secular education in yeshivas, other private schools
NEW YORK — The New York State Department of Education on Thursday proposed new regulations to demonstrate secular education in nonpublic schools, part of a years-long battle over the curriculum that is a major point of contention for Orthodox Jews in New York.
The proposed regulations would help govern secular education requirements at New York’s wide array of Jewish day schools, or yeshivas, which have fiercely resisted interference with their curriculum. State authorities have for years sought to balance religious beliefs and values with secular education requirements in non-public schools.
The regulations would give non-public schools six avenues to demonstrate that they are providing sufficient education in secular subjects.
Schools could prove their compliance with secular education requirements through accreditation; participation in a state program; register with the Board of Regents; participate in an International Baccalaureate program; obtain federal government approval; or through regular assessments of student progress. The Board of Regents provides general oversight of education in the state.
If a non-public school does not use one of the pathways to demonstrate that it meets secular coursework requirements, local public local school authorities must conduct a review by the end of the 2025 school year .
The regulations will also apply to non-Jewish schools, including Catholic, Amish and elite prep schools.
The proposed new regulations are open for public comment until the end of May. The Education Department will review feedback over the summer and then either make revisions or present final regulations to the Board of Directors in the fall of 2022.
New York State requires that all children in nonpublic schools receive an education that is “substantially equivalent” to education in nearby public schools. The definition of the term and the application of the law has been a source of ongoing controversy around yeshivas. The Department of Education has struggled for years to regulate and enforce substantial equivalency.
Critics of the yeshiva system say schools fail to provide adequate instruction in secular subjects, including English and math, leaving graduates ill-prepared 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 interference is an assault on religious protections.
As of 2020, approximately 160,000 students were studying at approximately 450 yeshivas across New York State. Yaffed, an organization that lobbies for reforms in the yeshiva system, predicted that by 2030, 30 percent of Brooklyn schoolchildren will be ultra-Orthodox, nearly all of whom study in yeshivas. New York’s nonpublic schools receive hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding.
Yaffed said he “congratulates” the Department of Education on the proposed regulations.
“The new rules provide a system of transparency in reporting processes that has been absent until now and improve the process of ensuring compliance” for non-public schools, Yaffed said in a statement, although the group has highlighted guard against “several loopholes” in the new rules.
“This process has taken time, but we remain cautiously hopeful,” said group leader Naftuli Moster.
—YAFFED (@yaffedorg) March 11, 2022
Two Orthodox organizations said the proposed new regulations were an improvement on past suggestions, but still criticized the proposal and said religious studies had value ignored by the Education Department.
Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, or PEARLS, said: “The government has neither the expertise nor the ability to assess our [religious studies] classes or those who teach them, but these regulations require local school districts to do just that.
PEARLS said authorities ignored requests for approval from an accrediting agency more familiar with the yeshiva system.
— PEARLS (@pearlsNY) March 10, 2022
Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox umbrella organization, said it was “deeply concerned” about the regulations’ potential impact on the yeshiva system. He said the regulations could impose “major changes” on yeshivas that were “completely unacceptable”.
“Nowhere in the proposed settlement is there any mention of the need to consider the educational value of religious studies in determining substantial equivalence,” he said. “For a yeshiva to be judged on the quality of its educational program without considering these religious studies would be a cruel mockery of the examination process.
Statement from Agudath Israel on proposed New York State equivalency settlementhttps://t.co/eTsppCXsnv pic.twitter.com/BYJkQm8tXi
— Agudath Israel of America (@AgudahNews) March 10, 2022
The Department of Education proposed substantial equivalency regulations in 2019, attracting more than 140,000 mostly negative public comments, forcing it to reevaluate. In 2020, the Board of Regents asked the department to hold regulatory discussions again with stakeholders to draft the new regulations. There were delays afterwards due to the pandemic.
The Education Department held meetings regarding the proposed regulations 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 survey of 28 yeshivas found that only two provided a “substantially equivalent” education to secular public schools.