February 2019 Church & State Magazine - February 2019

New York Religious Schools Refuse To Accept Government Oversight

  Rob Boston

Leaders of Catholic and Jewish private schools in New York have announced that they won’t comply with a new directive designed to ensure that sectarian schools are offering an appropriate education to youngsters.

The New York State Education Department late last year promulgated guidelines that aim to enforce a state law mandating that New York private schools offer an education that is “substantially equivalent” to public schools. This has been interpreted to mean that religious schools must offer adequate instruction in secular subjects. To ensure that this is taking place, the plan calls for public school officials to inspect the parochial schools. Increasingly, officials at the religious schools are saying they won’t cooperate.

“The parents who choose our schools can have great confidence in the academic rigor of our schools,” James Cultrara, executive secretary of the state Council of Catholic School Superintendents, told the Albany Times-Union. “We simply cannot accept a competing school having authority over whether our schools can operate.”

In December, Catholic school officials wrote to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, declaring that they won’t accept oversight.

“We write to inform you that the New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents, representing some 500 Catholic schools, rejects the recently released ‘substantial equivalency’ guidelines and is directing all diocesan Catholic schools not to participate in any review carried out by local public school officials,” they wrote.

The flap over private religious education in New York goes back to 2015, when news outlets began looking into the quality of education offered in some of the state’s Jewish schools. It came to light that yesh­ivas run by some ultra-Orthodox groups were spending just about all their class time on studying the Torah while offering very little, if any, instruction in secular subjects such as English, science and math. As a result, students were emerging from these schools with essentially no skills that made them employable in any field outside of narrow religious studies.

New York state officials wanted to address the issue but had to find a way to do it that did not single out the yeshivas. The plan they devised would allow public school officials to inspect the religious schools every five years to ensure that they were offering instruction in secular subjects. Religious schools that refused to take part could lose access to state services, such as transportation aid, security grants and certain state-mandated health measures, including testing drinking water for lead.

The Orthodox groups have also vowed to resist the new rules.

An Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, reported that in November, Aharon Teitelbaum, the leader of the Satmar Hasidic group, which has a large presence in parts of New York City, vowed that “the Jewish people will not surrender to the wicked, whoever they may be, even the state education commissioner. … We will not comply and we will not follow the state education commissioner un­der any circumstances.”

Teitelbaum also issued a veiled political threat, remarking, “We must speak to the leaders of the Democratic Party, who are now at the head of the leadership in New York State. … It wouldn’t pay for them to start a war with all God-fearing Jewry in New York.”

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