Jewish Press readers will recall that last year the New York State Education Department, without prior discussion or warning, issued sweeping requirements for non-public schools, including yeshivas. Those requirements would have imposed “objective criteria” for determining compliance with a state law that non-public schools must provide secular instruction that is “substantially equivalent” to the instruction provided to public school students.
But those criteria set arbitrary rules for what was to be taught and the number of instruction hours that had to be allocated to them. The news horrified many in our community who feared our children would be exposed to materials at odds with the Torah and that the time available for Torah education would be seriously diminished.
Because the state education authorities didn’t follow state laws governing the adoption of the new requirements, which required prior public notice and solicitation of public comment, a state judge invalidated the rules on procedural grounds in a lawsuit brought by lawyers representing Jewish, Catholic, and non-sectarian independent schools.
In response, the Education Department then began a process seeking comment on the proposals as it should have done at the outset. This allowed a now-greatly aroused private school sector community – mostly from the Torah world – flooded the Education Department with more than 140,000 comments in opposition to the proposals, and a bare 2,000 in support. This is a highly unusual level of public participation in this sort of thing; the Department has referred to the “vast number and wide-ranging scope of the comments received.”
Last week, the Education Department issued an update on its continuing review of the public comments it received. Although the review process is not over and what policies will emerge in light of the comments is still not clear, the turnaround in approach by the Education Department is stunning.
Thus, the “update” contained this revealing quote from the Interim Commissioner: “The Department appreciates the thoughtful feedback on the proposed regulations related to substantial equivalency. The Department will continue to review the comments and based on the breadth of comments received and the varying views expressed, the Department will re-engage stakeholders for further discussion on this important issue.”
But equally as important, and perhaps a harbinger of what is to come, the Department presented an overview of some of the most common themes that emerged from the public comments already reviewed.
According to the department, many commenters expressed concerns that the proposed regulation infringes on the rights of parents to determine the education of their children and some also said the regulations are unnecessary because if a non-public school underperforms, parents have the option to pull their children out. Other commenters stated that the regulation conflicts with specific religious beliefs.
To be sure, as noted, some commenters expressed support for the proposed regulation stating that it is necessary to ensure children receive an adequate education and that secular education is important in a culturally diverse society. Yet the epic effort our community and its allies were able to mount is testimony to the fundamental notions of religious and familial freedom in play. And we applaud the Department of Education for coming around to acknowledge them. Following the completion of the review, we look forward to discussions characterized by the same sense of good will as now seems to exist.
Bottom line? You can fight City Hall.