New York’s assault on educational equity

Exempting yeshivas from educational requirements violates the First Amendment.

Orthodox Jewish children and adults cross a street in front of a school bus in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

Orthodox Jewish children and adults cross a street in front of a school bus in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Bebeto Matthews/AP/Shutterstock

Tens of thousands of young people in New York are not getting a basic education, and the governments of New York state and New York City are violating their obligation to step in and correct this failing.

The schools in question are yeshivas, run by ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Although many yeshivas do provide a secular as well as a religious education, many do not. Painful firsthand reports from some graduates of those schools attest to just how limited their knowledge was when they completed their schooling.

The leaders of these schools have chosen not to teach most academic subjects at all or not to teach to the level that would ensure basic mastery, knowingly denying their students the knowledge and skills they would need to pursue further education or obtain employment in the secular world. Furthermore, these leaders have petitioned the government to protect them in this endeavor.

Governments have the responsibility to provide a public education to all and they have recognized the right of parents to choose private or parochial schools or to homeschool – provided that these educations meet basic standards and are substantially equivalent to a public school education. It must be the job of government to monitor this effort and to hold all non-public schools accountable to meet minimal standards.

Not only is that not being done, but now the New York state Legislature has attempted to protect this violation of student rights in an amendment to this year’s state budget. In the last minutes of debate, state Sen. Simcha Felder inserted a provision that would both lower standards for yeshivas and make oversight by state and local districts more challenging.

A suit has now been filed in federal court against the state demanding that the amendment be found unconstitutional because it provides a special “carve-out” for religious schools that has no secular purpose. The demand is that the state fulfill its obligation to all students in its jurisdiction.

The suit has been filed by Young Advocates for Fair Education, or YAFFED, a nonprofit organization created by Naftuli Moster – a graduate of a yeshiva who went on, with great difficulty, to get college and graduate degrees – to address the denial to many yeshiva students of their right to educational equality. According to YAFFED, a recent survey of male yeshiva graduates and their parents revealed the following: that no student had received instruction in all the subjects required by the state, while 27 percent of those in elementary school and an astonishing 75 percent of those in high school received no secular education whatsoever. This means that these graduates had only a limited command of English (many of them speak Yiddish as their first language), virtually no mathematics, science or history, and nothing that would prepare them for life outside their own community.

What would the public say, what would the ultra-Orthodox say, if a “carve out” was requested and an amendment introduced to exempt Muslim schools or madrassas from the state education requirements? We can easily imagine the diatribes that this effort must be stopped, that these schools are harming the public at large by teaching fundamentalism instead of the three Rs?

YAFFED has been engaged for several years in documenting the extent of the problem and bringing it to the constant attention of government agencies and elected officials. The responses by those in the city government entrusted with protecting the welfare of our students have been dreadful, with limited visits to schools, slow follow-up on complaints, failure to issue promised reports or even to answer questions at public meetings or press conferences.

The state has also been asked to investigate, and it is apparently because the ultra-Orthodox religious and communal leaders were feeling some pressure that they took their case to Felder, a Democratic elected official who caucuses with the Republicans. He acted to protect the yeshivas as a condition of his vote for the state budget, proposing an amendment which carves out just this particular universe of schools, no longer requiring them to teach specific subjects for adequate lengths of time, and – most egregiously – removing them from oversight by local school districts that are responsible for monitoring and compliance of all other non-public education programs in the state. The yeshivas’ “compliance” with watered down requirements is only going to be reviewed by the state commissioner of education, MaryEllen Elia.

In other words, the Felder amendment says there are large numbers of students who are to be treated differently because of their religion, whose right to a full education is no longer going to be protected. As alleged by YAFFED in its lawsuit, this is a clear violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because it offers a special benefit to a group that is defined by its religious affiliation, exempting one group from having to meet the same standards as everyone else.

As this case goes to court and the effort to reach a decision proceeds, we need to keep our eye on the victims – students who are being inadequately prepared to survive in the 21st century in any other school system, in college or at a regular job. Their rights are being trampled and it is imperative that the amendment be overturned and that both the state and the city governments speed up their promised investigation of these schools, find where they are failing to protect the rights of their students, and act to demand educational equity.