It probably came as a surprise to the editors over at the New York Times that its latest anti-yeshiva opinion piece packaged as investigative reporting would create the stir it did. After all, on the multiple recent occasions when The Times served up scathing indictments of the educational programs in yeshivas, instead of being pushed to provide substantiation for their assertions the burden somehow shifted to the yeshivas to demonstrate they were not guilty as charged in the press.
Yeshivas were again demanded to prove a negative this time around when The Times offered up a 16-page (in the online version) article titled “How Hasidic Schools Reaped A Windfall Of Special Education Funding.” The subheading: “New York Has Paid Companies Millions Of Dollars To Help Children With Disabilities In Religious Schools. But The Services Are Not Always Needed Or Even Provided.”
The funds referred to are allocated for students with disabilities in all non-public schools, not just religious ones – something that could, if seized upon, provide the basis for meaningful comparative analysis. That is not what happened here, however.
With the italics ours, here are some pertinent excerpts:
State law requires cities to deliver those services to students in private schools, even if the government has to pay outside companies to do it. But for years, when parents asked, New York City officials resisted and called many of the requests unnecessary.
In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio changed course. Responding to complaints, especially from Orthodox Jewish organizations, he ordered the city to start fast-tracking approvals.
The policy has made it easier for some children with disabilities to get specialized instruction, therapy and counseling. But in Orthodox Jewish religious schools, particularly in parts of the Hasidic community, the shift has also led to a windfall of government money for services that are sometimes not needed, or been provided, an examination by the New York Times has found.
So far, we see that – in the eyes of The Times – the Orthodox are somehow blameworthy for successfully lobbying for special education services for students in their schools. And they were so successful that a surplus of funding was allocated toward this important goal? For shame.
Dozens of schools in the Orthodox community have pushed parents to get their children diagnosed with disabilities, records and interviews show. At least two schools have sent out mass emails urging families to apply for aid. A third school provided parents with a sample prescription to give to their children’s doctors, saying a diagnosis would bring more resources for the school.
Today, at Hasidic and Orthodox schools…higher percentages of students are classified as needing special education than at other public and private schools in New York City, a Times analysis of government data found.
In the fervently religious Hasidic community, where Yiddish is the dominant language, schools focus on Jewish law and prayer, while often providing little secular education in English. The Times found that at 25 of the city’s approximately 160 Hasidic yeshivas, more than half the students are classified as needing special education. Records show the classifications are routinely justified by citing the students’ struggles with English.
Across all city schools, one in five students as having a disability. There is little research into whether disabilities occur more frequently in the Hasidic community than in others.
Despite the lack of relevant research, parents and yeshiva school officials seeking the best for their children are somehow presumptively operating out of corrupt motives, a damning global diagnosis based on what goes on in 32% of the schools surveyed.
Interestingly, there is much anecdotal material offered by The Times to support its allegations of schools’ pressuring parents, over-billing by providers, and lack of training for special education teachers. But The Times also quotes school spokesmen who explain it all in terms of the normal give and take that is inevitably part of debates between parents and school administrators over what’s best for the children in question.
There are also layers of monitoring by special education officials to determine the appropriateness of service, staff training, use of funds, and productivity. This may not be foolproof, but it doesn’t mean the system is corrupt, nor defined solely by some anecdotal evidence from the New York Times, either.
We think that The Times and others criticizing yeshivas in the context of special education have a fundamental problem with religious schools. The Times quotes a longtime hearing officer who has overseen thousands of requests for special educational services: “Cases involving non-public schools have ballooned so wildly that they have engulfed and hobbled the entire system. It’s affected the access to justice of all, and swamped the cases of children who attend public schools.”
But why are religious school students second-class citizens? Why are public school students the center of gravity? All children are equal before the special education law. We rather think that The Times’s continuing vendetta against yeshivas reflects a sense that real Americans go to public schools and not yeshivas.
In case the New York Times hasn’t gotten it yet, New York yeshivas have been around for a long time and don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon. Nor do we in the Orthodox community plan to change the way we go about educating our children and live our lives. Perhaps then it’s time for The Times to stop looking at us as targets of opportunity.