Schools and Learning

All Students Deserve Education In Secular Subjects. Is New York Finally Ready To Make Sure That Happens?

  Rob Boston

The New York Times on Sunday ran a shocking, in-depth story examining religious schools run by Orthodox Jewish groups in New York that are failing to offer secular education, as state law requires, even as they pull in hundreds of millions in taxpayer support.

The piece by reporters Eliza Shapiro and Brian M. Rosenthal took up four full pages in the print edition. It exposed a litany of problems at the schools, known as yeshivas, finding that most of them emphasize religious instruction and study of the Torah and other religious texts. Secular subjects such as math, science and English are relegated to a few hours a week, if they’re offered at all. Since instruction is in Yiddish, many students emerge with only a rudimentary grasp of English.

In 2019, The Times reported, one of the yeshivas, the Central United Talmudical Academy, agreed to give its more than 1,000 students standardized tests in reading and math that are used by the state. Every student failed.

“Students at nearly a dozen other schools run by the Hasidic community recorded similarly dismal outcomes that year, a pattern that under ordinary circumstances would signal an education system in crisis,” The Times story reported. “But where other schools might be struggling because of underfunding or mismanagement, these schools are different. They are failing by design. The leaders of New York’s Hasidic community have built scores of private schools to educate children in Jewish law, prayer and tradition – and to wall them off from the secular world. Offering little English and math, and virtually no science or history, they drill students relentlessly, sometimes brutally, during hours of religious lessons conducted in Yiddish.”

Some former students are speaking out. Moishy Klein, who left the Hasidic community, said the education he received left him unprepared to deal with the outside world.

“I don’t know how to put into words how frustrating it is,” Klein said. “I thought, ‘It’s crazy that I’m literally not learning anything. It’s crazy that I’m 20 years old, I don’t know any higher order math, never learned any science.”

Shockingly, despite these dismal outcomes, the schools receive millions in public support. The Times reported that the schools get public funds to pay for government mandates and transportation and to provide various social services. Taxpayer money, the newspaper charged, ends up subsidizing “their theological curriculum.” In 2019, noted The Times, Hasidic schools for boys received more than $375 million from local, state and federal government sources. (There have also been reports of abuse of students at some of the schools.)

New York officials have occasionally vowed to crack down on the yeshivas, citing a state law that requires private schools to offer an education equivalent to what students receive in public schools. But critics say the law isn’t being enforced because a band of Hasidic rabbis has essentially crafted a political machine that can deliver a large bloc of voters, giving them influence with New York City mayors and state governors. Former students and their parents told The Times that prior to elections, teachers would give students sample ballots with names of the rabbis’ favored candidates filled in.

City inspectors who sought to crack down on the schools were stymied by higher-ups. In some cases, Hasidic leaders simply refused to cooperate with state investigators and would not even give them access to school buildings. When state officials earlier this year floated a new plan for oversight of religious schools, Hasidic leaders vowed to stop it.

“Now is our opportunity and sacred duty to try to stop the guidelines before they go into effect,” a group of rabbis wrote in a flyer that was printed in Yiddish.  “The future of your generations rests in your own hands.”

The New York Board of Regents has proposed new rules that would finally put some teeth into requirements that religious schools adequately cover secular subjects. Here’s hoping they’ll be adopted. But that’s not enough. This time, the rules will actually have to be enforced.

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