April 2015 Church & State | People & Events

Private schools, including Orthodox Jewish ones, will be allowed to incorporate religion into taxpayer-funded universal pre-kindergarten programs to encourage greater  participation in one of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature initiatives.

Participating private schools will be permitted starting in September to take breaks during the day for prayer, The New York Times reported, but the new program guidelines will not reduce the weekly required hours for secular instruction.

Under the current rules, secular activities must account for six hours and 20 minutes of class time per day for five days each week. The new rules will allow the school week to be spread out over six days, meaning less time per day can be devoted to secular instruction without adding more hours to the school day.

Prayer time would likely occur during a “short break” for “non-program” activities, which will be allowed under the new rules, The Times said. This period would likely occur after lunch, officials have said, while a similar unstructured play time could occur during the same period at secular schools. The regulations will also allow religious schools to stay open on federal holidays so that they can close on days of religious observance and still meet the mandated 180 days of class time.                 

These changes are intended to entice Orthodox Jewish schools in particular to participate in universal pre-kindergarten. Historically, these schools have not participated in city-funded education programs, but de Blasio hopes to get 70,000 students enrolled in pre-K and thinks adding more Jewish schools can help him attain that goal. (Currently 53,000 students are signed up.) 

These new regulations are the latest attempt to give preferential treatment to religious schools. Last year, schools participating in universal pre-K were allowed to give preferential treatment to teaching applicants who share the school’s faith, and they were allowed to incorporate religious textbooks into secular lessons.

City officials said there are no constitutional concerns for a program in which all students are supposed to feel comfortable attending any participating school.

“A Catholic kid from Bensonhurst should be just as comfortable in a preschool run by Hasids in Williamsburg as one in his own community,” Richard R. Buery Jr., a deputy mayor, told The Times last summer.

Not all observers agree.

“The prayer break is an attempted end run around the prohibition against religious education and prayer in city-funded pre-K programs,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. The regulations “add up to a religious school funded with taxpayer money.”  

A leading Orthodox group said the new rules don’t go far enough. Maury Litwack, director of state political affairs for the powerful Orthodox Union, expressed dissatisfaction with the changes, calling them merely “cosmetic.”