Over the last few months yeshivas have come under fire in New York City with allegations that these Orthodox Jewish private schools fail to provide sufficient secular education. Critics have called for increased regulation of these institutions. The disapproval overlooks the valuable role yeshivas play in our communities. It is too easy to allow a generalization or misperception to define an entire community. Those falsehoods malign an entire institution.
The fact is, yeshiva students spend many more hours in the classroom than traditional students and much of that time is spent on a curriculum focused on critical thinking and analytical skills. These are skills that are not emphasized in traditional public schools. The longer school day starts when these students are in elementary school and that training provides a foundation to help them excel as adults in a wide variety of professions. In addition to critical and analytical thinking, yeshivas also emphasize ethical and moral development that is central to their cultural teachings. Taken as a whole, yeshivas instill grit and determination as well as core values in students rarely seen in any other type of education system.
Critics are quick to point out that even though yeshivas are private schools they receive government funding. But yeshivas are saving New York taxpayers money. The Orthodox families who send their children to yeshivas are largely self-funding the education system to the tune of $2 billion a year. While yeshivas receive some public funding, most of that money is spent on legally mandated services required by the federal government, from student transportation to school lunch. Despite these mandated services, some are still calling for state regulators to intervene and provide more oversight.
Some claim that yeshivas should be forced to “show their work” and detail how they provide minimum standards of secular education to their students. If there is a need to involve the state, then do so, but also provide those places of learning the same opportunities as the entire state’s population of students. For instance, when substantial equivalence is questioned, the state Education Department and the policymaking body of the Board of Regents should work with yeshivas to provide the necessary resources for supplemental instruction. This is especially important for yeshivas where English may be a second language to Yiddish. Similar support is given in public schools, where a large segment of the student population may also be English language learners; the only difference is the language being spoken. Aren’t all students entitled to those resources?
The goal of all schools – traditional public, charter, Catholic, Hellenic, yeshivas, and other alternatives – is to provide students with a high-quality education. It is in the best interest for all that future generations be as educated as possible. We must always be vigilant to work collaboratively to ensure students, regardless of their background or religion, receive a pedagogically sound education. It is critical to acknowledge that yeshivas play an invaluable role in their communities regardless of an outsider’s perspective.
It goes without saying that generalizations and attacks in the press against one group of people and their schools place a target on that community by the politics of contempt. We have already seen the hatred in some peoples’ hearts and how that is weaponized against the innocent. At this moment, it is critical to foster a discourse of inclusion, understanding, and empathy; anything less is a cunning disguise inviting public hostility.
It is important for the public and my colleagues in government to recognize the valuable role yeshivas play in their communities. We must collaborate to ensure all students receive a high-quality education. If there are educational needs and gaps in education, whether around language or anything else, then the government must do its part to ensure those places of learning have the resources necessary for students to be successful.