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Buery defends pre-K guidelines issued to religious schools

After the inclusion of religious schools in New York City’s pre-K expansion efforts drew criticism, a top city official took to the airwaves on Tuesday to defend the city’s plans.

“The law is clear, the rules are clear,” Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, who oversees the pre-K initiative, told listeners on Tuesday’s Brian Lehrer show.

As Chalkbeat reported in June, in the rush to make 53,000 full-day seats available by September, the city released guidelines to ease religious schools’ concerns about accepting public funding for full-day pre-K. Many of those schools already accepted state funding for half-day pre-K but reserved the other half of the day for religious instruction.

City officials say the guidelines simply clarify existing laws. But the distinction between cultural instruction, which is permitted, and religious instruction, which is not, took some explanation from Buery–and some religious schools have said that even with the city’s guidance, they’re still not sure what they can and cannot do.

Schools must remove all religious symbols visible from the entrance students will use, unless it’s impractical to do so, Buery said on the radio Tuesday. Teachers in religious schools can tell pre-K students about a man named Noah who saved two of each animal during a flood, he said, if their goal is to introduce kids to new animals or teach them to count by twos. But they can’t tell “a story about God bringing a flood.”

Asked if a school could carry out a mock-Passover Seder, Buery responded, “There may be social and historical elements of the Seder that would be permissible, but performing an actual seder would be problematic.”

Buery emphasized that parents who don’t want their children to attend religious schools don’t need to place them there. One parent who commented on the site where the radio segment is posted weren’t satisfied with that answer.

“There isn’t much choice with the kind of scarcity of seats there is in many neighborhoods,” wrote Ana, who included only her first name.

Another commenter, Francyne Pelchar, argued that parents should be grateful for the chance to send their kids to pre-K, regardless of the site.

“If I had a child and the closest pre-K program was run by any religion and had religious symbols, I would be so glad to have the kid off my hands all day, I’d go for it,” Pelchar wrote.