By Leslie Brody (Wall Street Journal)
December 17, 2017
New York officials are revising the state's guidelines for instruction at private K-12 schools, sparking concern among some religious and independent school leaders about possible government overreach.
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told a conference of private-school leaders this month that her agency is clarifying guidance that says children in these schools must receive a "substantially equivalent" education to students in public schools.
Some advocates for private schools are concerned that changes could intrude on their freedom.
"The state's efforts to oversee the education of children in religious and independent schools has the potential of overreaching in a way that threatens the autonomy, independence and mission of the schools that parents choose for their children,'' said James Cultrara, co-chairman of the New York State Coalition for Independent and Religious Schools.
Almost 1,800 private schools operate statewide, serving about 460,000 children, the coalition says. The schools can tap taxpayer dollars for various services, such as textbooks, teacher training and security.
State guidance says that if a district decides a private school isn't delivering substantially equivalent education, such funding is withdrawn and public school authorities can ask Family Court to deem its students to be truant.
Betty Rosa, chancellor of the Board of Regents, which sets education policy for the state, said the revisions aim to make its expectations more transparent, help local district leaders understand their role in determining compliance, and spell out consequences for inadequate instruction. She said the state would consider the views of private-school leaders, and she would like a draft ready in February.
This revision comes as New York City officials say they are investigating 39 yeshivas that critics accuse of failing to teach enough secular studies or prepare students for higher education and life in general. Representatives for the yeshivas, which are Hasidic and ultraorthodox, have said they are cooperating with the investigation.
Ms. Rosa said in an interview she believed some yeshivas aren't meeting the mandate to provide substantially equivalent educations [https://www.wsj.com/articles/concerns-persist-about-curricular-standards-at-orthodox-yeshivas-1504823785], based on her discussions with parents and former yeshiva students, as well as information from fellow Regents.
"I am very concerned," she said. "When we talk about the expectations we have for all students to be ready, it's all students," she said. "Some of those schools do fall in the category of not fulfilling that obligation."
Rabbi David Niederman, who is on the executive committee of a Hasidic coalition called Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, said they welcomed a dialogue with the Regents to show them the "beauty and success" of their schools.
"The Regents can't get an accurate picture of our yeshivas by speaking to a handful of disaffected graduates, just as the public schools can't be judged by their most vocal critics," he said by email.
The city's investigation started more than two years ago, after complaints about a few yeshivas from an advocacy group, Young Advocates for Fair Education. That group issued a report in September saying that on average, a Hasidic boy at the yeshivas under scrutiny gets secular studies for 90 minutes a day from age 7 to 12, and only Judaic studies after turning 13.
Critics of the yeshivas say the city has moved too slowly on the investigation. A spokeswoman for the city Department of Education said it has visited 15 yeshivas so far, including nine since Sept. 7. She said the visits were planned with the schools as the state requires. "We are aggressively working to schedule more," she said.
Studies must include math, reading, spelling, writing, English language, U.S. history, hygiene, science, and other subjects, according to state law. If a local superintendent concludes a private school isn't complying, and can't resolve the problem with the school, the local board of education can rule that the education provided it isn't equivalent, the law says.
If parents continue to enroll their children in these schools, they should be notified that petitions will be filed in Family Court saying their children are truant, New York's current guidance states.