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New State Rules Offer Road Map for Regulating Private Hasidic Schools

The New York State Board of Regents voted for the first time on Tuesday that private schools must prove they teach English, math and other basic subjects or risk losing government funding.

The adoption of the new rules by the board, which oversees the state’s education department, could prove a turning point for Hasidic Jewish religious schools that for years were essentially free to offer little or no secular education while they still raising public money.

State education officials had been considering the measure for years, and the vote came days after The New York Times reported that more than 100 boys’ schools from the Hasidic Jewish community have raised $1 billion in public funding in recent years, but have deprived generations of students of basic education. . The gender-segregated schools, which enroll more than 50,000 boys in Brooklyn and the lower Hudson Valley, have also regularly enforced order with corporal punishment, The Times found. The report sparked outrage from top New York officials, with many pointing to the new state rules as a first step.

The rules passed on Tuesday were at least the third such set of regulations issued by the board since 2018, when state officials sought to clarify how to enforce an age-old law requiring private schools to provide education similar to that of public schools . The lawsuit began after the state received complaints about Hasidic schools, known as yeshivas, with former students and parents saying the schools did not offer secular primary education.

“It’s unreasonable to think there are young people in schools who aren’t getting a quality education,” Council of Regency Chancellor Lester Young said, adding that the state is “doing it serious” by holding private schools to academic standards.

But whether the rules will have an impact will depend on enforcement, and it will largely be up to local school districts to enforce the guidelines — leaving open the possibility that they will be applied ineffectively or unevenly.

Unlike previous versions of the rules, the regulations passed Tuesday do not impose minimum requirements for the amount of instruction time in secular subjects. And they don’t impose a clear timetable for schools that don’t offer basic education to meet educational requirements.

Instead, they let the schools operate without penalty, as long as education officials believe the school is trying to improve in good faith. State officials have not defined what such an effort would look like.

During a background briefing with reporters last week, senior state education officials repeatedly dodged questions about what would happen to a school that didn’t comply.

While it’s possible schools could lose funding, officials also said local school districts, rather than individual institutions, could face financial penalties. And officials did not say whether a school could be closed for violating the law.

Still, supporters of more secular education in Hasidic schools applauded the vote.

“Today, the New York State Department of Education and the Board of Regents took a giant step forward to ensure that all children who attend non-public schools receive the education they deserve,” said Naftuli Moster, a yeshiva. graduate and founder of the Young Advocates for Fair Education group.

Mr. Moster and others have been pushing the issue for a decade, but city and state officials have avoided taking action, in part because of the influence of Hasidic community leaders. Those leaders have pushed their followers to vote as a bloc and have made protecting the schools their top political priority.

Members of the Hasidic community, an intensely religious group struggling to separate from the outside world, expressed fierce opposition months ahead of Tuesday’s board meeting, flooding state officials with hundreds of thousands of letters of protest. A day before the vote, opponents of the rules protested outside the state capitol with placards that read, “We will be in jail instead of changing our children’s education.”

“The state’s confirmation that it plans to dictate curriculum and faculty in private and parochial schools is deeply disappointing and we oppose it,” said the Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in School, a group of Hasidic leaders. and supporters of the schools, in a statement. “Parents in New York have chosen yeshiva education for more than 120 years and are proud of the successful results.”

Not only members of the Hasidic community were dissatisfied with the new rules. Nathaniel Styer, a spokesperson for the New York City school system, said they will burden city Department of Education officials with additional enforcement duties, forcing them to inspect private schools while juggling public school responsibilities.

“We believe these regulations place an unnecessary burden on our public school system,” said Mr. Styer, adding that the department would implement the rules.

A city investigation into education in dozens of Hasidic yeshivas in Brooklyn has lasted seven years and two mayoral administrations and is still ongoing, although Mayor Eric Adams said through a spokesperson last week that the investigation is in its final stages. Some city officials in charge of visiting yeshivas have said they have had no training in inspecting schools and received little guidance from the state on how to go about it.

Under the rules passed Tuesday, schools can choose from a menu of options to demonstrate compliance with the law. They can show progress on state-standardized exams — although The Times found that Hasidic boys’ schools have some of the lowest test scores in the entire state.

Schools could also prove compliance by receiving accreditation from an approved third-party organization, a path that has raised concerns among some activists who fear the Hasidic community could create its own accrediting agencies.

Schools that fail to demonstrate compliance must allow local school district officials to visit them by the summer of 2025, and the officials will determine whether the schools provide the minimum education required.

The rules have come a long way to enact. State education officials unveiled an initial proposal four years ago, but in 2019 a judge threw it out over a procedural issue; in 2020, the state withdrew another plan after criticism from Hasidic leaders.

Earlier this year, the state released another proposal with fewer requirements for schools and more muddy consequences for breaking the law. Hasidic leaders continued to wage a massive campaign of opposition, which resulted in the state receiving nearly 350,000 comments on the regulations, most of them negative.

While the rules would have little effect on hundreds of independent and non-Hasidic religious schools in New York, including the many Jewish schools that offer a highly secular curriculum, some of the state’s most elite private schools have joined efforts to enforce the rules. to block.

Hasidic leaders have been warning for years that any government interference in the yeshivas poses a threat to the community, and many have called on their followers to help block regulations.

“This is a real decree of destruction for our future generations and we are obligated to make every effort to revoke this decree,” read a letter in Yiddish, sent to families through yeshivas, promising that children living at least two signed petitions against the rules would enter a raffle “to win a nice prize”.

“We don’t want people who don’t value our value system to come and tell us how to raise our kids,” said Aaron Twerski, a Brooklyn Law School professor and yeshiva graduate whose children also attended Hasidic yeshivas. When asked if he was concerned about the lack of secular education in many Hasidic schools, Mr. Twerski replied, “We make the trade-offs, not the state.”

Despite the opposition, the Board of Regents made few changes to its proposal before formally adopting it on Tuesday, a move several elected officials praised in light of the lack of education in Hasidic schools described by The Times.

“As a legislator, as a taxpayer and as a Jew, I am shocked that we are continuing to expand this uncontrolled system with hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money,” said state senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the finance committee. “The Ministry of Education regulations, due to be adopted today, must be quickly enforced.”

Jay Root reporting contributed.