By Kate Taylor (NY Times)
April 6, 2016
A group representing parents and former students at ultra-Orthodox yeshivas accused the de Blasio administration on Wednesday of dragging its feet in investigating their schools, out of fear of alienating a constituency that the mayor has assiduously courted.
In July, 52 parents, former students and former teachers sent a letter to New York City’s Education Department saying that 39 yeshivas were violating state law by not providing students, particularly boys, an adequate education in secular subjects like English, math and science. The Education Department said then that it would conduct an investigation of the yeshivas, located in Brooklyn and Queens.
But on Wednesday, the group behind the letter held a news conference in front of City Hall to express its frustration with the lack of any apparent progress in the investigation.
“It’s eight months later, and there’s no sign of a serious investigation taking place,” Naftuli Moster, the leader of the group, Young Advocates for Fair Education, said. “In fact, all indications are that the D.O.E. is just stalling us. In the meantime, tens of thousands of boys — we estimate around 30,000 — are not getting a basic education.”
The group’s lawyer, Norman Siegel, a longtime advocate for civil liberties, said he believed the reason the investigation was stalled was that city officials did not want to cross ultra-Orthodox leaders.
“It’s about people putting politics over the rule of law,” he said.
Under state law, minors in private schools must receive instruction “at least substantially equivalent” to that offered in public schools. The letter sent to the Education Department in July said that the 39 yeshivas did not meet that standard. Students between the ages of 7 and 13 received only 90 minutes a day of English and math instruction, four days a week, and had no instruction in science or history, the letter said. English instruction for boys stopped at age 13.
Most Hasidic Jews speak Yiddish at home, and nearly a third of students in Jewish schools in New York City speak limited English, according to the Education Department.
It is not the first time that civil libertarians have criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, for what they see as kid-glove treatment of religious groups. In December, the New York Civil Liberties Union accused Mr. de Blasio of pandering to religious advocates by supporting a bill, which he later signed, that allows private and parochial schools to hire security guards, at a cost to the city of $20 million annually. The bill was supported by the Orthodox Union and other religious groups, including the Archdiocese of New York and the Islamic Schools Association.
Mr. Siegel said that politicians “don’t want to touch the issue” of secular education in yeshivas because of their desire to retain support among ultra-Orthodox voters.
When asked whether political concerns had anything to do with the seeming lack of progress in the investigation, Austin Finan, a spokesman for the mayor, said in an email that the inquiry was “active and ongoing.”
There is evidence to support the group’s contention that the investigation has stalled, however. In July, Harry Hartfield, a spokesman for the Education Department, said that it was “in the process of finalizing a set of requests” that superintendents would send to the yeshivas in their districts. Last month, Mr. Hartfield, using the same words, told the neighborhood news site Patch that the department was “in the process of finalizing” the requests and would send them out “soon.”
Mr. Finan said on Wednesday that it was “inaccurate” to say the requests had not been sent out, but declined to comment further.
Mr. Moster called on the Education Department to appoint full-time investigators to lead the inquiry, to be transparent about the investigation’s progress and to make unannounced visits to the yeshivas to see what instruction they were providing. The department has suggested that it may conduct visits, but has not said anything more about them.
Chaim Levin, 26, who attended the news conference, said that when he was a child, his yeshiva, Oholei Torah in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, offered no English education at all. He showed his third-grade report card, which listed marks in prayer, the study of Torah and Talmud, Hebrew spelling, penmanship, Yiddish and Jewish history. He said he was now in his second semester of college and was hoping to become a lawyer, but that he was dreading having to take a math class, because he had never learned algebra.
A mother spoke about her concerns for her son’s education, but asked to be identified only by her first initial, S., because she feared a backlash from her insular community She said that her 9-year-old son attends a Hasidic yeshiva in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and that he was already losing interest in secular subjects because they were valued so little at the school.
“I think New York City is failing my kid,” she said.