(CN) – In the U.S. education system, civil rights battles tend to focus on removing barriers to quality schools. Not so in New York, where new regulations guaranteeing a “substantially equivalent” education have inspired a pair of legal actions.
The New York State Education Department released the guidelines here in November. Deputizing local school districts to hold private schools in compliance, the guidelines give teeth to decades-old mandates that private schools provide a comparable quality of education to public ones.
Among those resisting the change are coalitions of Orthodox Jewish, Catholic and private schools, which petitioned for relief last week in Albany Supreme Court.
“The penalties for a private school that is not deemed to be providing ‘substantially equivalent’ instruction include disallowing students who qualify for textbook, busing, and lunch aid from utilizing that aid at such a school, and directing parents whose children are enrolled at the school to transfer them to another school,” says one of the petitions, led by Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, an advocacy group for Orthodox Jewish institutions known as yeshivas.
Represented by the firm Troutman Sanders, the pro-yeshiva group contends that the guidelines trample their rights to free religious exercise.
Their March 7 lawsuit came on the heels of a different constitutional challenge by the New York State Association of Independent Schools. An umbrella group representing 198 schools and organizations, the challengers in this case brought their petition with attorneys from Katten Muchin.
The case points to a 1948 ruling by the state’s highest court that constrained enforcement of the “substantial equivalency” standard.
“In the 70 years since Packer Collegiate was decided, the Legislature has declined to enact any such legislation,” the petition states.
Both petitions bring to a head longstanding local and national controversies in education: privatization and the obligations of religious schools. The tension was one that drew a wink last May from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who opted to skip over all public schools in favor of visiting two Orthodox Jewish schools: Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, Queens, and the Manhattan High School for Girls on the Upper West Side.
Just a month earlier, the New York Legislature passed a carve-out under pressure from state Senator Simcha Felder, himself an Orthodox Jew, that exempted yeshivas from state regulations.
The group Yaffed, short for Young Advocates for Fair Education, meanwhile drew attention in a 2017 report to the failure of yeshivas when it comes to providing basic secular education.
Yaffed found that only 65 percent of respondents reported having been taught math or how to read English in Yeshiva elementary schools, which generally offer instruction in Yiddish.
“In a recent survey of 116 yeshiva graduates and parents of current students, of which 49 attended Hasidic yeshivas in New York City, not a single respondent said that their New York City school provided instruction in every subject required by the state,” the report states.
Just 24 percent “reported learning U.S. history, and only 2 percent learned New York history,” the report also found.
Yeshivas are gender segregated: “Only 8 percent of Hasidic boys in NYC received instruction in science, and 10 percent were taught geography,” Yaffed found. “None recalled any education in art, nor in music.”
Yaffed sued New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state officials over the so-called “Felder amendment” in federal court, but the lawsuit failed earlier this year for lack of standing.
For the yeshivas, regulation is an intrusion on their traditions and religious beliefs.
“Parents choose these schools, with their substantial tuition payments, instead of the public schools because they want their children to have an education that is rooted in Jewish texts and informed by Jewish morality, history, culture, ideals, and hopes,” their petition states.
To their critics, the failure of the yeshivas to provide basic secular education perpetuates a documented cycle of poverty in Orthodox Jewish communities. New York’s ultra-Orthodox village of Kiryas Joel has ranked the nation’s poorest place multiple times, and a 2013 report labeled Brooklyn the “capital of Jewish poverty in America.”
When rolling out the new educational guidelines last year, state regulators made no reference to any Orthodox Jewish or Catholic denomination.
“Every child has a fundamental right to receive a quality education,” Betty Rosa, chancellor of the New York Board of Regents, said in a statement at the time.
Education Department Commissioner Maryellen Elia emphasized the sensitivities meanwhile of the communities under review.
“Every review should be carried out in a respectful, mindful and objective manner to give all students the opportunities they deserve to succeed in life,” Elia said then.
Citing agency policy, the New York State Education Department declined to comment on the legal actions challenging the guidelines.
Yaffed’s executive director Naftuli Moster warned of grave consequences for children in ultra-Orthodox families if the courts rule in favor of the yeshivas.
“For decades, many ultra-Orthodox yeshivas in New York violated state law by failing to provide instruction to students that is ‘at least substantially equivalent’ to that of public schools,” Moster said in a statement. “When they were called out by Yaffed and others, they denied it, hid behind religious freedom, and changed the law at the eleventh hour. Now that the state and city have started providing the oversight that was so sorely missing before, these schools are seeking again to legally rob ultra-Orthodox children of an education. If they succeed, the state will not be able to implement and oversee even basic standards in these and other non-public schools, which are clearly required to ensure that the mandate under the N.Y. Constitution of a ‘sound basic education’ is met.”