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New York Has an Obligation to Secure the Education of Hasidic Children

It is an essential obligation of state government and foundational to life and liberty: New York requires children to go to school and to receive instruction in English and math and other basic skills that are necessary for participation in our democratic society.

But New York has failed to fully enforce those laws. An education system that contains some of the finest schools in the nation also contains some that are profoundly struggling, whether public or private, religious or secular. This past week, new attention has fallen on how state and city officials have allowed tens of thousands of Hasidic children to attend schools that openly flout the state’s requirements. Former students have testified that upon graduation, they were unable to read in English or even write their own names.

A New York Times investigation into the state’s Hasidic schools laid bare the extent of the crisis. About 50,000 boys are attending these private schools, operated by Hasidic communities in New York City and the lower Hudson Valley, where there is hardly any instruction in English and math, and even less in science and civics.

In 2019, The Times found, more than 99 percent of male students at nearly a dozen Hasidic schools who took state standardized tests in reading and math failed, while about half of all students who took the same tests in the state passed them. Some children, too, have been subjected to physical abuse from poorly paid, unqualified teachers. Making this possible are federal, state and local tax dollars to the tune of more than $1 billion over the past four years alone, according to the investigation.

“I’m the third generation born and raised in New York City,” Chaim Fishman, who attended Yeshiva Kehilath Yakov in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, told The Times’s Eliza Shapiro and Brian M. Rosenthal, “and still, when I was 15, I could barely speak English.”

A benchmark for any government is how rigorously it protects its most vulnerable, and New York is failing this test for most of the 50,000 boys who attend Hasidic schools. They are being denied education in a common language and the other essential skills that enable Americans to meet their responsibilities as citizens.

The state is also misusing public resources by allowing money to flow to schools that are not even attempting to meet basic standards. Families have the right to decide where to send their children for education, and many choose religious schools. But state support for those institutions must be contingent on their compliance with state law.

transcript

My Son’s Yeshiva Is Breaking the Law

Ultra-Orthodox schools must provide a proper education, but politicians aren’t holding them accountable.

My son is 8 years old. He tells me he wants to be a scientist when he grows up. But his ultra-Orthodox Jewish school doesn’t offer any sciences. Even the math and English, it’s only four hours a week. There is a law in New York State that all private schools have to provide an education at least equivalent to what’s being provided in the public school. There’s almost 60,000 children in New York that attend these type of schools. The school is breaking the law, but the city and state officials are not doing anything about it. Meisha Ross-Porter, you’re our new chancellor. Please make sure every child in New York gets the education they deserve. Betty Rosa, you’re commissioner of education, this is already the New York state law. Just enforce it. Yeshiva is a boys’ school. In 2019, a New York City investigation found that only two out of 28 ultra-Orthodox yeshivas met the basic standards. The boys in my community, and my son, are essentially being prepared to become Jewish scholars, rabbis. The hardest thing for me is to see what happens when you don’t get that education. I was one of those boys. I went to a yeshiva called Oholei Torah in Crown Heights. I didn’t learn enough history to even know who Martin Luther King was. Oftentimes you’ll see politicians afraid to do anything or even say anything, because the community votes as a bloc, and it’s a powerful voting bloc. “The mayor was facing re-election, loath to offend voters in the Hasidic community.” What these politicians are doing is that they’re invalidating the experiences of thousands of people, including myself, who were denied a basic education. When I left the yeshiva system, I had no idea how to get into the job market, and I didn’t feel like I had any options or a way forward in terms of a career. I didn’t even have a high school diploma. This is not about suppressing the religious education. Many yeshivas offer a Judaic study curriculum and an academic study curriculum — math, science, history, geography. The modern Orthodox schools, the Catholic schools, the Quaker schools — there are so many schools that do this really successfully. I’m no longer part of the community. Because I’m divorced and I have an agreement with my ex-husband, who is part of the ultra-Orthodox community, I have to send my child to an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva. This is an ad asking for teachers, and it explicitly says, [speaking in Yiddish] “You don’t need to know anything.” It does say if you went to a yeshiva, there’s a strong possibility that you participated in college programs. “College” is written like “collage,” but I think they mean college programs. The teachers are coming from the same system, and then they go and teach. These are the teachers they’re looking for. It is so, so maddening. I want my son to be able to fill out a job application, write a college essay, just the basics. I am begging you as a mother, please enforce the law to make sure my son gets the education he deserves.

Ultra-Orthodox schools must provide a proper education, but politicians aren’t holding them accountable.

New York, a state where a relatively high proportion of schoolchildren attend private school — about 13 percent — has long turned a blind eye to the conduct of those schools, including the Hasidic schools.

This month, the state’s Board of Regents for the first time adopted a clear framework for certifying that private schools are complying with New York education law. Under this framework, local school districts are responsible for determining whether private schools within their jurisdiction are meeting the state’s basic standards for education. Hasidic schools and other private institutions that are failing to meet that standard have 60 days to work with the local school district to develop and commit to a plan to bring the school into compliance. In New York, having any framework at all is an improvement.

But the changes are inadequate. The new standards allow schools to continue to operate within state law if they show good faith efforts to improve, a vague measure that can allow failing schools to operate indefinitely. It is a loophole so large that it could render the changes meaningless. The state has also declined to include requirements for a minimum amount of instruction time in English or other subjects. And the state has failed to lay out any clear and meaningful consequences for schools that refuse to comply.

The immediate crisis confronting the state is that dozens of Hasidic schools are operating in open defiance of state law, often barely offering classes in English. The state needs to establish a firm deadline for these schools to achieve compliance.

Massachusetts offers a model. That state allows private schools to operate only when local school boards find that their level of instruction is at least equal to that of local public schools. The logic is simple: If a school doesn’t provide an education equivalent to what a student would get at a local public school, then attending that institution doesn’t count as going to school.

Such laws do not interfere with the right of families to choose a private or parochial education. Rather, it ensures that the state fulfills its obligation to make sure that every child — whether educated at home, in public schools or in private schools — receives an education that meets basic standards.

In the longer term, the state and local school districts also will need to strengthen their ability to monitor and enforce the education law at private schools. Gov. Kathy Hochul and the State Legislature can direct funding to local education departments in New York City and elsewhere in the state, allowing them to hire and train dedicated staff members to properly monitor and investigate private schools that are not in compliance with the state’s education law. They can also direct funding to the State Education Department, where a shortage of staff has stymied reviews of Hasidic schools and made enforcement difficult.

New York’s biggest problem is not the rules, but the enforcers. Application of the new rules rests with local officials in New York City, Rockland County and elsewhere who have long failed to hold Hasidic schools accountable.

Elected officials have known about this crisis for years and have not dealt with it. Parents, former students and teachers have outlined a systematic denial of education, which they say is intended to prevent them from succeeding outside the Hasidic community. In 2015, more than 50 parents, former students and teachers sent a letter to several school superintendents and the city’s Department of Education alleging that 39 Hasidic schools were failing to teach English and other basic secular subjects, and were not in compliance with state education law.

“Generally speaking, at the listed yeshivas, English and mathematics are taught from around age 7 to 13 for an average combined time of only 90 minutes and on only four days a week,” they wrote. “Other secular subjects are not taught at all, let alone taught in English. At these yeshivas, English instruction for boys stops at age 13. Girls generally receive a better secular education than do boys but we are still concerned that it is not sufficient to prepare them for their futures.”

A yearslong city investigation, begun under the former mayor Bill de Blasio, has still not been completed. In 2019, however, the city issued an interim report concluding that dozens of Hasidic schools were denying children a basic education.

The city and the state have allowed those schools to continue to operate anyway.

From governors and legislators to mayors and city officials, and the education officials they either appoint or influence, elected officials have been deeply reluctant to take decisive action to protect these children. The reality is that if they did they could face political reprisals from leaders of the Hasidic communities, who traditionally vote as a bloc, maximizing their sway in New York elections. The investigation languished under Mr. de Blasio, who had nurtured political ties to the Hasidic community. It continues to languish under Mr. Adams, who has also cultivated such ties.

Asked what they planned to do to ensure that Hasidic children receive a basic education in the state, many of New York’s most prominent elected officials had little to say.

Senator Charles Schumer declined to comment through a spokesman.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries, whose district includes some of the schools, said through a spokesman that the allegations are “serious in nature” and require a “rigorous inquiry.”

Governor Hochul said this week that the governor’s office “has nothing to do with this.”

“Department of Education, Commissioner of Education, and the trustees are all separately governed outside our purview,” she added, hiding behind a vast bureaucracy over which New York’s governor has substantial sway. Through a spokeswoman, Ms. Hochul declined to comment further.

A spokesman for the Assembly speaker, Carl Heastie, said that Mr. Heastie believes all children deserve a high-quality education. “The board recently issued new regulations, and we will continue to follow that process closely,” he said.

The Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, said in a statement that the allegations were “deeply disturbing and must be addressed.”

State Attorney General Letitia James declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

Mayor Eric Adams said on Monday he wouldn’t act without an “independent review.”

“I’m not going to look at a story. I want a thorough investigation,” he said at a news conference. He said the city would investigate any physical abuse reported to it. A spokesman for Mr. Adams said on Thursday that the city’s seven-year review into the schools was “in its final stages.”

The time for open-ended investigations and empty promises has long passed.

These politicians should follow the courageous example of Beatrice Weber, a mother of 10 whose children attended Hasidic schools in New York. Ms. Weber has sued the state, arguing her son was being denied education required under New York law.

“That’s my kids. This is and was their education,” she said in a phone conversation.

The State Legislature, led by Mr. Heastie and Ms. Stewart-Cousins, elects the Board of Regents and can push the body toward a stricter framework for enforcement than the one established this month.

Mr. Adams should take the overwhelming evidence before him seriously and commit to much more robust enforcement, referring schools that are out of compliance to the state without delay.

New York was among the earliest adopters of universal education in the United States. That proud tradition began in earnest in the years after the Revolutionary War, when abolitionists established a school for free Black New Yorkers and the children of the enslaved. Insisting on strong standards for all schools continues that tradition.

State government can be an enormously powerful force when it acts in concert to defend the rights of those it represents. Elected officials — the governor, New York City mayor, State Legislature, members of Congress and officials in law enforcement including the state attorney general — can use that power to protect Hasidic children. Making sure that every child in New York has an adequate education is not only a moral obligation. It is necessary to allow those children to fully exercise their rights in our democracy.

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