Will Jewish Pre-Schools Comply With Secular UPK?

Will Jewish Pre-Schools Comply With Secular UPK?

Will Jewish Pre-Schools Comply With Secular UPK?
June 12, 2014

As New York City ramps up its implementation of full-day universal pre-K for this coming fall, with progress reports coming out of the mayor’s office seemingly every week, one question that remains to be answered is how will UPK-contracted yeshiva programs and preschools serving predominantly Jewish children comply with the strict religious guidelines set by the city?

When the state Senate announced its proposal in March for the state to allocate $300 million to New York City to fund full-day universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in an effort to allay concerns that the state would not hold true to its commitment, said, “Pre-K is going to be just another grade. You’re not going to stop funding first grade.”

But if pre-K truly is to be considered the initial rung in the education ladder, then the question arises whether there are fundamental issues of church and state regarding the traditional values and teachings of some of the organizations receiving public money to deliver the “high quality” pre-K that Mayor Bill de Blasio is seeking to provide.

The de Blasio administration attempted to address this issue after “intensive” negotiations with Jewish officials and education leaders.

The Department of Education issued a document providing “initial guidance” on the administration of UPK programs by religious schools and faith-based organizations. These guidelines include prohibiting religious symbols in school buildings or classrooms used by UPK students; texts from religious traditions (the Bible, Torah, Qu’ran, etc.) may be used when presented objectively as part of a secular program, though religious instruction in general is not permitted; and programs must include an English learning component, even if some portion of instruction is conducted in a non-English language.

Not listed in these guidelines, but confirmed with city officials, is the provision that these schools must also accept any child regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender.

The guideline that is most problematic in the eyes of some legal experts, however, is that these UPK providers may, to the extent permitted by law, give preference to job applicants of the same religion or denomination.

It’s one thing for religious institutions to minister exclusively to the faith and to hire people exclusively of the faith when they’re doing it on their own dime,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “When the taxpayers are funding a program that’s provided by a religious entity, then it must be done with a strict mandate against discrimination based on religion. New York City taxpayers would be unhappy that their tax dollars were being spent on hiring discrimination of people of any faith.”

These guidelines were also issued only days ahead of the deadline for public schools and community-based organizations (CBOs) to submit Requests for Proposals to enroll in the program, raising legitimate questions about whether the city properly vetted the dozens of yeshivas and Jewish day schools that are participating in the UPK program.

In response to numerous questions posed to the agency on the issue of yeshiva programs complying with UPK standards, Harry Hartfield, a spokesman for the Department of Education would provide only a blanket statement on the record.

“Our goal is pre-K for all, and we’re going to achieve it by offering a wide range of options that meet the needs of parents as their children enter the educational system. We have a tremendous number of high quality community-based educational options across all neighborhoods to meet that demand, and we are reaching out to families directly to make sure they know their options and can find the right fit for their child.”

City & State browsed the Department of Education’s directory of Community Based Early Childhood Centers (CBECC), and phoned dozens of the yeshivas and Jewish organizations listed. None responded to requests for comment about how they are complying with the administration’s UPK guidelines, and several categorically refused to answer any questions.

One only has to read some of these organizations’ mission statements, however, to see where conflicts from a required secular curriculum could arise. Associated Beth Rivkah Schools, a Chabad institution in Brooklyn that runs from preschool through high school, states on its website that its teachings “integrate the love of God, commitment to intellectual knowledge and understanding of the Torah.” Further down, the school adds that, “Our teachers help our students realize that the Jewish and secular worlds are interconnected, and that it is neither possible or desirable to isolate ourselves 100%.”

Other CBECCs listed in Brooklyn, such as Magen David Yeshivah, explicitly state that they are focused on the Torah, and celebrate “the existence of the modern state of Israel, and supporting it through prayer and deed.” Yet another, Bnos Menachem, an all-girls school in Crown Heights, states that the school’s vision is to “create a learning environment that promoted traditional and Chassidic values.”

Numerous education sources within the city’s Orthodox community suggest that many of these stricter Orthodox schools would have great trouble abiding by the guidelines set forth by the de Blasio administration, because the aforementioned religious values are so embedded in their curricula.

“It’s incredibly difficult for a yeshiva to comply with the rules set forth by UPK,” said one education advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting the de Blasio administration. “Most of the schools that are actually going to have the program, if they’re Chassidic, they’re not going to be complying with the rules.”

Another Jewish parent, whose children attended a yeshiva preschool, added that, “A full-day UPK program, it just doesn’t work; none of these are going to work if you’re in an Orthodox school with city funding, if you’re not allowed to have [religious] icons and you’re not allowed to have [religious] material. Every Jewish school is probably too Jewish for these rules.”

The de Blasio administration has also added an extra hour and 20 minutes to the typical preschool day, meaning that many yeshivas and Jewish CBOs have little wiggle room in structuring the nonsecular components of their programs—such as blessings and any form of religious instruction—to comply with the UPK standards.

“Many Jewish day schools have been able to incorporate part-time UPK in the past; they’ll have an hour of Judaic education for the beginning of the day,” said Maury Litwack, the director of state political affairs for the Jewish advocacy organization Orthodox Union. “Legislators realize the bigger question is ‘How do we fit everything we have to teach a 4-year-old within the requirements of this program?’ Within the mayor’s regulations, it’s much more difficult. A number of schools who applied to it are hoping they can figure out a way to make it work, but this is a nearly unanimous concern.”

Multiple sources indicated that the Jewish faith-based preschools are still negotiating with the de Blasio administration over the extra hour and twenty minutes. 

To ensure compliance with the UPK religious guidelines, the Department of Education has added extra staff to its early childhood education office, and many of those staffers will be tasked with periodic site visits to yeshivas and Jewish CBOs. It is not immediately clear what will happen to schools that are found to be in violation of the UPK guidelines, nor did DOE respond when asked how many site visits are made to individual schools each year. The agency indicated that they would also respond to complaints from parents about various issues with the preschool programs.

And what about a secular family whose only conveniently located pre-K options may be yeshiva programs? An administration official pushed back at the notion that there would not be a variety of options in any given neighborhood of the city—but even so, that does not answer the question of whether UPK programs rooted in Jewish teachings would accept students outside of their faith.

Rabbi David Niederman, the executive director and president of the social services agency United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, said that individual schools’ mission statements and educational philosophies should not necessarily be read as gospel. “There’s something called ‘discrimination,’ ” he said, “and something called ‘Who are you marketing?’ ”

Niederman added that it is ultimately a choice secular parents will have to make if they want to apply to a program that serves predominantly Jewish students.

“That parent will make a decision if they want this child to be there or not,” he said. “That school, upon application, will comply with the law.”

Still, some are skeptical. The NYCLU has corresponded with the mayor’s general counsel on religious compliance with universal pre-K, and while the city has assured the organization that it is committed to secular programs, the aforementioned red flags mean that civil liberties experts like Donna Lieberman will be keeping a watchful eye on the implementation.

“If there are environments that are not secular, and not welcoming to children of all faith, those programs would be in violation of the law and, I believe, of the [administration’s religious] guidelines,” Lieberman said. “It’s up to the city to enforce [secularism] and to protect the rights of children and family to equal access to this wonderful new resource, and to make it wonderful in a secular way.”

Placeholder blue outline avatar
Nick Powell