New York State Senator Simcha Felder did yeoman work last week when he stood up for the right of parents of religious school children to direct their education against the threat of governmental intrusion. At his insistence a law was enacted which would – at least for the near future – thwart a plan by the New York State Department of Education to force children being educated in a number of chassidic schools to receive certain instruction in subject areas like science and history that are at odds with the religious teachings embraced by their parents.

New York law has long required that all non-public schools offer their students an education that is “at least substantially equivalent to the instruction given to [students] of like age and attainments at the public schools of the city or district where the [student] resides.” Italics provided. The Department had recently announced that it would promulgate regulations that would effectively interpret substantial equivalence as sameness.

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Essentially, the Felder legislation addresses the impending shift and directs the Department as to how the “substantially equivalent” standard is to be met. Accordingly, as respecting elementary and middle schools, the Department must take into account the totality of the educational experience a school offers its students:

 

[I]f the curriculum provides academically rigorous instruction that develops critical thinking skills in the school’s students, taking into account the entirety of the curriculum…including instruction in English that will prepare pupils to read fiction and nonfiction text for information and to use that information to construct written essays that state a point of view or support an argument; instruction in mathematics that will prepare pupils to solve real world problems using both number sense and fluency with mathematical functions and operations; instruction in history by being able to interpret and analyze primary text to identify and explore important events in history to construct written arguments using the supporting information they get from primary source material, demonstrate an understanding of the role of geography and economics in the actions of world civilizations, and an understanding of civics and the responsibilities of citizens in world communities; and instructions in science by learning how to gather analyze and interpret observable data to make informed decisions and solve problems mathematically, using deductive and inductive reasoning to support a hypothesis, and how to differentiate between correlational and causal relationships.

 

Similarly for religious high schools designed to educate students who attended lower schools with the above-described curriculum in determining substantial equivalence. However, another catch-all standard was introduced: “[I]f the curriculum provides academically rigorous instruction that develops critical thinking skills in the school’s students, the outcomes of which taking into account the entirety of the curriculum, result in a sound basic education.”

The effort to encroach on the right of religious parents to see to it that their children are educated in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs seems to have been fueled by some disgruntled graduates of chassidic schools. But these individual experiences cannot be allowed to drive the educational program of those schools as a whole. Students and their parents are free to choose any school that appeal to them and avoid those that do not.

The planned new Department of Education policy which prompted the Felder legislation represented a substantial infringement on religious rights. Happily this has been stayed. But the test will come in its enforcement. And we must all be watching.

Much of the media mocked his efforts and accused him of putting the passage of the New York State budget in jeopardy. But we believe that some of those criticisms and some of the opposition to Felder’s legislation had as much to do with disrespect for religion in general and ours in particular than the legislation itself.

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