Last Wednesday, the New York State Education Department issued clarifications to the lengthy, and sometimes, vague educational guidelines it had released on November 20. For fifth and sixth graders, the guidelines will not require a minimum number of hours studying general subjects like math, English, and history. Only seventh and graders will have an hour requirement – but those will effectively be cut in half, from the original 35 hours a week.
The original regulations were sparked by concerns about the lack of secular education at chassidic boys’ schools, but they apply to every private school in New York state regardless of how well it has educated its students in the past.
The Council of Catholic School Superintendents made the first move after the original, unclarified guidelines were issued, calling for boycotting the new review system at all of the New York state’s approximately 500 Catholic schools, according to the Albany’s Times Union newspaper.
A December 13th op-ed in the Wall Street Journal authored by Rabbi Elya Brudny, rosh yeshiva at the Mirrer Yeshiva, and Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, placed the blame for the guidelines on criticism from a small group who “appear more interested in undermining parental control of yeshivas than in enhancing their secular studies.” They acknowledged that some yeshivos need improvement, but argued that they “don’t define the yeshiva system.”
By the time the clarifications were announced on December 19, an online petition protesting the November directive had already garnered approximately 50,000 signatures. And when they were issued, yeshiva advocates – rather than celebrating – dug their heels in, noting that the main issue was not the number of hours mandated by NYSED but rather control of private school curricula.
A statement issued by Agudath Israel of America said it considered the clarifications “progress” but argued that giving the state authority to decide which subjects should be taught and for how long – which would potentially cut into the hours of Torah instruction – was “a grave threat to our mesorah.”
A similar statement from Parents for Educational And Religious Liberties in Schools criticized NYSED for formulating requirements without incorporating meaningful input from parents, yeshivos, and others involved in Jewish education, leading to a flawed process that ultimately had the state suffering “the embarrassment of having to walk back requirements it supposedly spent two years developing.”
The Orthodox Union’s Teach NYS released a statement saying it was “extremely concerned about government regulation of the curriculum of religious day schools and yeshivas,” as did the Rabbinical Alliance of America, with executive director Rabbi Mendy Mirocznik slamming NYSED for violating the tenet of separation of church and state “in a most egregious manner, as evident by the draconian guidelines issued by the New York State Department of Education.”
An initiative spearheaded by City Councilman Chaim Deutsch also took on the updated requirements, noting that they could affect nearly half a million students in religious Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish private schools. A letter signed by 28 of the City Council’s 51 members charged NYSED with attempting to turn private schools into “curricular clones” of the public schools, “forcing its way deep into private school practices with this unprecedented incursion.” It blasted the department for refusing to respond to concerns raised by community leaders.
Community leaders have called on the public to continue expressing their dissatisfaction with NYSED’s new policies. A letter released last week by Torah Umesorah signed by Rabbi Brudny, Rabbi Reisman and Rabbi Yaakov Bender, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, urged readers to “keep the pressure up” in the “battle for the heart and soul of our yeshivos.”
Meanwhile, an email campaign on the Agudah’s newly-launched YeshivosByChoice.org website had 39,000 individuals voicing their concerns to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Elia, and the Board of Regents as of Tuesday afternoon.
Is there a possible solution to the problem that can make all parties involved happy? Former chancellor of the Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, told The Jewish Press that, having worked in the past with leadership of the yeshiva community, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Elia, she believes cooler heads will prevail.
She said she’s confident that improving educational standards at underperforming schools while still respecting religious and cultural sensitivities is an attainable and realistic goal.
“My true belief is that we will be able to land this plane in a way that allows the commissioner to fulfill her obligations while still respecting the sanctity of the separation of church and state,” said Tisch. “No one has any interest in breaching that line. Come let us all be reasonable together because we are all good people who want our children to have a bright future.”