With its pre-kindergarten expansion underway and its school-turnaround program under pressure to perform, New York City has its hands full with its own schools.
And yet the city was recently reminded that it is also on the hook for overseeing private schools, under a state law that says local officials must ensure that non-public school students receive an education “substantially equivalent” to that of their public school peers.
Last Monday, more than 50 Jewish school parents, former students, and former teachers invoked that rule in a letter asking several superintendents to investigate nearly 40 yeshivas that they claim offer unacceptably scant instruction in math, English and other non-religious subjects. The education department has promised to investigate, as Jewish Week first reported.
“We take seriously our responsibility to ensure that all students in New York receive an appropriate education, and we will investigate all allegations that are brought to our attention,” spokesman Harry Hartfield said in a statement. He did not answer any specific questions about the investigation.
Such an investigation would be a rare move, experts say. While Catholic, Islamic, Jewish and other private schools receive millions of public dollars for things like busing, testing, and immunizations, they operate almost entirely out of public view. And though the city is responsible for keeping tabs on the private schools in its borders, other factors can get in the way: City officials have limited resources, a reluctance to overstep church-state boundaries, and an awareness that these schools serve politically connected communities.
“There are political, fiscal, and legal complications involved in this,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Grad Center, referring to the city’s duty to oversee private schools. “All of them militate against the application of the rule.”
There are 250 yeshivas in New York City serving more than 106,000 students, making it the largest non-public school sector. While many Jewish schools are known for their mix of rigorous religious and secular studies, some of the yeshivas that educate boys in the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities have long been said to focus primarily on religious instruction.
The group responsible for last week’s letter, Young Advocates for Fair Education, or Yaffed, has been asking the government to probe yeshivas’ academic programs since 2011 but said it saw no signs of official action until delivering this letter, which was also sent to media outlets.
The group says that most yeshiva classes are taught in Yiddish or Hebrew and focus on religious texts, with just 90 minutes per day devoted to math and English for young students and often no secular studies for high school-aged boys. (Girls tend to enjoy a more equal mix of studies.) Yaffed founder Naftuli Moster, who attended a Borough Park yeshiva, said the school left him woefully unprepared when he decided to enroll in a community college.
“I didn’t know what the word ‘essay’ meant,” he said, “let alone how to write one.”
State law says that private schools must offer reading, math, science, history, health, and other academic classes on par with those in public schools. If a local superintendent finds that a school is not doing so and fails to make changes, the district can cut off the school’s public transportation and its funding for textbooks and health services, and mark its students truant, the law says.
The group has been on a multi-year quest to get the government to look into secular education at these schools. Moster said he met with state officials in 2012, but they told him that district superintendents are responsible for enforcement. So Moster met with a few Brooklyn superintendents with many yeshivas located in their districts, but he said they knew little about the rule.
Last December, the group sent a letter to top state and city officials requesting an investigation into secular studies at ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, but got no response. This time, they enlisted 52 parents and former yeshiva students and teachers to sign onto the letter and forwarded it to local superintendents and the media.
The letter asked for an investigation of the academic instruction at 39 specific yeshivas: 38 in Brooklyn and one in Queens. The group withheld the names of the signatories and the yeshivas — part of an effort to reassure the ultra-Orthodox community that the group’s intent is to reform the yeshiva system, not to sanction individual schools.
Maury Litwack, state political affairs director for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, which represents New York yeshivas, said the schools have a “dual curriculum” of religious and secular studies that they “are always looking to improve.” However, he said many schools are cash-strapped and could use more public funds to support math, English, and other non-religious instruction.
“If the city and state want to have a robust discussion about how our kids are educated, that discussion has to include what they’re willing to invest,” he said, “because right now the answer is a very paltry amount of funding.”
Several experts on the ultra-Orthodox community said they knew of no instance when the city education department had investigated a yeshiva’s academic program. And now may be an especially sensitive time for the agency to begin conducting such investigations since City Hall has spent the past year trying to convince yeshivas to join in the mayor’s signature initiative and offer full-day pre-K, even though that means less religious instruction for their students. The ultra-Orthodox community is also considered a powerful voting bloc.
At an unrelated press conference Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio seemed unfamiliar with the city’s responsibilities under the equivalent-education rule when asked about the call to investigate the yeshivas.
“I’m not sure I follow, because obviously it’s a separate school system,” he said, adding that he needed to review the matter.
But City Hall spokesman Wiley Norvell said the city takes its duty seriously to address complaints about any private school, including the yeshivas cited in last week’s letter.
“Everyone is held to the same standard,” he said in a statement, “and there is zero tolerance for the kind of educational failure alleged.”