Lawsuit accuses New York state of giving special treatment to ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools

The Washington Post/August 3, 2018

By Valerie Strauss

Should religious schools be required to follow state law that mandates students receive education in secular subjects?

That question is at the heart of a lawsuit that seeks to prevent New York officials from implementing an exemption recently approved by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) that allows private ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools to ignore state rules about how much secular education they must provide.

The lawsuit is at the heart of a long-standing debate in New York over some ultra-Orthodox schools known as yeshivas, which traditionally enroll only males. While many Orthodox Jewish schools provide secular education, about 80 of the approximately 275 yeshivas in New York state don’t. Their students don’t learn to read or write well in English, and they spend little time on other secular subjects, according to the group that filed the lawsuit.

A state law, however, requires all private schools to provide an education in secular subjects that is “substantially equivalent” to what students receive in public schools.

The lawsuit was filed this week by the nonprofit Young Advocates for Fair Education in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against Cuomo, New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and New York Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa.

It asks that the state officials be barred from implementing the budget law Cuomo signed April 12 that allows yeshivas to get around the state law regarding secular education. The suit argues that the law violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which separates church from state.

Cuomo signed the law after months of wrangling in the state legislature that centered on state Sen. Simcha Felder, who held up a vote until he could secure an exclusion for the schools. Felder represents a part of Brooklyn that includes Orthodox Jewish communities where yeshivas are located. His vote is pivotal in the New York State Senate, which has 32 Democrats and 31 Republicans; Felder is a Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans and provides them with a one-vote margin.

The language in what became known as the “Felder Amendment” was clearly aimed at providing an exception for yeshivas to the state rules and included the specific time of day that the schools operate. (A New York Times article had this title: “The Curious Case of the Yeshiva Carve-Out.”)

A spokesman for the New York State Education Department said neither Rosa nor Elia would comment on pending legislation. The governor’s office did not respond to queries. A group called Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools issued a statement denouncing the lawsuit, saying its contentions about yeshiva education were incorrect.

Elia said late last year that her department was revising state guidelines for private K-12 schools, although a representative said there was no date for the unveiling.

“The Department continues to update its guidance on equivalency of instruction,” according to a statement from Emily DeSantis, spokeswoman for the New York State Education Department. “The purpose of updating the guidance remains the same — to ensure that all New York State students, whether they attend a public or nonpublic school, receive a quality education that prepares them for success in life. The guidance is still a work in progress and we will incorporate the latest change in law into our guidance. We hope to finalize the guidance as soon as possible and begin implementation immediately thereafter.”

Politicians in New York City and statewide have been solicitous of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community for years, securing public money for some of the operations of the schools.

For example, the New York Post reported recently that Felder had “secured some $200,000 in discretionary funds for ‘education access’ programs for Agudath Israel, the lobbying force that helped fight state efforts to impose instructional standards on yeshivas.” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a supporter of using public money for private and religious education, has long been an ally of Agudath Israel.

The New York City Department of Education said a few years ago it was looking into some yeshivas and accusations that students were getting little or no secular education, but a report has not been released, and the department did not respond to an inquiry about the status of the probe. The New York Post published an editorial recently that said in part:

"How long will Mayor [Bill] de Blasio keep trying to fool New Yorkers about his phony “probe” of city yeshivas? Since 2015 — 2015! — his folks have been claiming they’re “investigating” whether 39 religious Jewish schools are providing an adequate education to students. Yet after all this time, only 15 have been inspected."

Young Advocates for Fair Education, the organization that filed the lawsuit, was founded by Naftuli Moster, a Jewish man who attended a yeshiva that offered little secular education. If a school isn’t offering much in the way of secular education, he wants the state to force that school to provide adequate instruction in subjects such as English, math, science and history.

In a report released last year, the organization said the average young Hasidic man who leaves a school that doesn’t provide secular education “speaks little or no English, has few or no marketable skills, earns a household income well below the average Brooklynite’s, marries young and has many children, and is forced to rely upon public assistance to support his large family.”

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