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NY State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia

NY State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Monday reiterated her decision to enforce the state law requiring non-public schools to offer students a “substantially equivalent” academic instruction. And by non-public schools she means mostly Catholics and Orthodox Jews.

Last November, Elia received much flack from Catholic parochial schools and Jewish yeshivas for its Updated Guidance and Resources on Substantial Equivalency of Instruction, under the state law that requires local public school officials to ensure that the education received by nonpublic school students is substantially equivalent to the level of education received in district public schools.


Back in November, Elia announced that public school administrators must review nonpublic schools in their districts to see if they provide education which is “substantially equivalent” to what’s being taught in public schools in core academic subjects.

Substantial equivalency means that a program is comparable in content and educational experience, but it may differ in method of delivery and format.

The Education Department is facing two lawsuits challenging the guidelines, one by a coalition of Orthodox Jewish organizations, the other by a group of 11 private schools.

The guidelines require every yeshiva in New York State to be reviewed by evaluators who will to fill out a checklist with very specific requirements in each school’s curriculum, daily schedules, enrollment data, and attendance.

Attorney Avi Schick / Troutman Sanders website

Former deputy attorney general of New York and partner at the law firm of Troutman Sanders Avi Schick, last November said yeshivas are concerned that the “substantially equivalent” requirement would completely alter their educational environment.

“Appendix A of the Program Requirements expects that fifth through eighth grade yeshiva students receive two ‘units of study’ in English Language Arts, Social Studies, Math, Science, and various units of study for Phys Ed, Health ed, Music, Visual Arts, and more,” Schick says, explaining: “A unit of study, it says, is equal to at least 180 minutes of instruction per week. Add up the units in this Appendix, and we are looking at six to seven hours a day of secular studies.”

Schick suggests this is well beyond what any Yeshiva can provide without seriously impairing its ability to provide Torah studies, which is the reason their students have registered in the first place.

“Obviously, no yeshiva can do this,” Schick says.

Commissioner Elia said her department had committed to enforcing the “substantially equivalent” education law after being named in a lawsuit by parents who accused some Orthodox yeshivas of neglecting secular studies.

The commissioner explained that superintendents had little knowledge about judging the compliance of yeshivas with the law, and so she issued standards under which to assess the compliance. The department is holding training sessions explaining the standards and how to conduct the mandatory reviews.

Elia has met with legislators, rabbis and Catholic clergy about their concerns, but insists, “We have the law in front of us, and one of the roles that I play as the commissioner of education is to follow the law…”


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