Concerns Persist About Curriculum Standards at Orthodox Yeshivas

By Leslie Brody (Wall Street Journal)
September 7, 2017

Two years ago the New York City Department of Education promised to investigate allegations that 39 Orthodox yeshivas failed to teach enough secular studies.

Critics who said the city didn't tackle the probe aggressively enough got new ammunition Thursday when the department revealed how many it had visited so far: Six.

None were surprise inspections.

"That's outrageous," said Naftuli Moster, executive director of Young Advocates for Fair Education, an activist group that says many Hasidic yeshivas fail to teach sufficient English, math and science. "During all this time, [department officials] told us they were on it, they were taking it seriously. That's really all they could do?"

Toya Holness, an Department of Education spokeswoman, said by email "we are treating this matter with the utmost seriousness" and planning more yeshiva visits. She said the department works with schools to schedule them "in accordance with state guidance."

State law requires that private schools provide an education that is "substantially equivalent" to that in public schools. Like all private schools, yeshivas can tap taxpayer dollars for a range of services, including meals, textbooks and tutoring for poor children.

Earlier this year, department officials had promised a report on its investigation by Sept. 22, but then said they needed more time. Critics said the department was stalling because of the powerful Orthodox community's influence on Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat running for re-election this fall.

Asked about the delay on Thursday, the mayor said "there is just more work to do" and the department had "a lot more schools to visit to get to a firmer conclusion."

Mr. de Blasio said that meanwhile, "there's been a lot of dialogue with the yeshivas" and he believed "the message has been received that we need high quality education for all of our kids."

Young Advocates for Fair Education estimates tens of thousands of children are harmed by a lack of secular education. The group released a report Wednesday saying that on average, a Hasidic boy at the yeshivas under review gets secular studies for 90 minutes a day from age 7 to 12, and only Judaic studies after turning 13.

"The average young Hasidic man leaves the yeshiva system completely unprepared for life outside," the report said.

Efforts to reach individual yeshivas, such as Educational Institute Oholei Torah, were unsuccessful. Many are clustered in the Williamsburg and Borough Park areas of Brooklyn.

Avi Schick, a lawyer for the 39 yeshivas under investigation, referred a call for comment to the group's public relations firm. That firm had David Zwiebel, executive vice president for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox advocacy organization, speak for the group.

Mr. Zwiebel said the yeshivas were cooperating with the investigation, some had bought new textbooks, and some teachers had been trained in a curriculum more in line with the state's expectations.

Yeshiva leaders were concerned, however, there might be too much intrusion into traditions at schools that parents chose for their children.

"The specter of government coming in...and telling schools what [their students] have to learn and the hours they have to devote to that learning and making fundamental something of concern to many people in the Orthodox community," he said.