Qualifying for UPK: Will de Blasio Accomodate Orthodox Jewish Schools?

Qualifying for UPK: Will de Blasio Accomodate Orthodox Jewish Schools?

Qualifying for UPK: Will de Blasio Accomodate Orthodox Jewish Schools?
February 19, 2015

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration on Wednesday outlined how it is seeking to make universal pre-kindergarten more inclusive, but one Orthodox Jewish group called the plan “cosmetic” and contends that it does not accommodate Jewish schools.

Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, who is charged with overseeing the city's universal pre-K expansion, wrote in a memo published on JPUpdates.com that the city Department of Education has made a number of changes it believes will make the program a more viable option for more families and providers. Next fall, pre-K providers would be able to count secular instruction on any day of the week and federal holidays toward the mandatory weekly total of 31 hours and 40 minutes, Buery wrote. Providers would also be permitted to take short breaks for prayer or other purposes, which would be excluded from the secular education hour-count.

But Orthodox Union Advocacy-Teach NYS, which represents an estimated 8,000 students in New York City Yeshiva and Jewish day school pre-K programs, maintains that most of its communities’ early education centers would not be able to participate in the mayor’s signature program, according to its director of state political affairs, Maury Litwack.

Litwack said many Yeshiva programs simply do not meet the city’s minimum secular instruction limit, which is based on a day lasting six hours and 20 minutes, but that they do comply with state guidelines, which are based on a five-hour day. He said the city previously allowed Jewish schools to count Sunday instruction, and he does not anticipate that including education on federal holidays will help many more providers qualify for the city’s program.

“We were in talks with City Hall for over a year on these problems," Litwack said. "We launched a campaign over the last month, and then these changes were not done in consultation with our organization at all.”

Litwack said the Orthodox Union was lobbying City Hall to abide by the state’s instructional limit or to expand its use of half-day pre-K, which he said tends to better accommodate Yeshivas.

About 11 percent of the city’s Jewish day school students are enrolled in city-funded universal pre-K programs, according to Litwack, and another 20 percent are in city-funded half-day programs.

Half-day providers receive about $2,700 to $3,000 per pupil annually from the city, provided their program includes two hours and 30 minutes of secular instruction a day, Litwack said. Full-day providers are paid an average of between $7,000 and $10,000 annually per child, he said.

In his memo, Buery said the administration anticipated “continuing a modest half-day program, however, we believe the flexibility explained here will make full-day a viable option for even more families and providers.”

Litwack said he is concerned about half-day programs because the city has not yet released related requests for proposals (RFPs), which he said are traditionally put out in November.

“It would be one thing if there was a commitment for the 20 percent,” he said. “There’s a promise for an RFP, but there’s no RFP.”

Brooklyn City Councilman David Greenfield posted on Twitter Wednesday that, “We were promised UNIVERSAL Pre-K. We haven’t come close to that.”

In another tweet, Greenfield said that the “Mayor’s changes to UPK will help *some* yeshivas but not most. Admin must do more to help *most* yeshiva students who still won’t have UPK.”

The de Blasio administration did not return requests for comment.

The New York Catholic Archdiocese, however, praised the changes.

Fran Davies, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese’s education initiatives, said it was not involved in discussions with City Hall on the changes and did not anticipate them altering how many of its early education programs qualified. But she said authorizing a break from secular education would enhance the Archdiocese’s programs.

“We do feel that this flexibility will benefit the children because it will allow them to participate in other community events and different celebrations they have available to them at our schools,” Davies said. “It will be a benefit in terms of educating the whole child.”

Sarina Trangle