There has been a shift in New York State. The Democratic Party won control of the State Senate. Up until a few days ago, the Senate was just about evenly split with Democrat Simcha Felder caucusing and most of the time voting with the Republicans on issues that mostly effect his community in Boro Park, a large part of the area he represents in the Senate.
Now the Democrats hold a significant majority of the State Senate along with a sizeable majority in the Assembly and, of course, in the governor’s office.
Amongst many other issues affected by this, perhaps the “education crisis” as it is being termed, has the first, most immediate impact.
The chareidi press in outlets like Mishpacha and the FJJ in Brooklyn decried the fact that we were under attack and that our educational systems are about to be undermined. The initial disinformation was that yeshivas going forward would be required to provide students with seven hours per day of secular subjects as part of their daily curriculum—more than is required from statewide public schools.
The understood goal is that yeshivas coming into compliance with basic educational guidelines and laws would eventually help get legislation passed on a statewide and eventually on a national level that allows government to pay yeshivos for at least the secular studies part of the day thereby potentially reducing by half the average tuition bill for yeshiva parents.
This has become more difficult due to the push by YAFFED — Young Advocates For Fair Education — and their founder Naftuli Moster to improve the deficient secular studies in many Chassidic schools that leave students unprepared to function in the work force. While Mr. Moster has gained an inordinate amount of attention, mostly because he is cast as a Jew criticizing and accusing other Jews, his message has been heard loudly and clearly by those in government who are concerned about the level of education in some private schools and that education funds are not being properly directed and expended.
These are complicated and sensitive issues that are further exacerbated by the shift in government in Albany. According to some organizational officials involved in talks with the New York State Education Department, there are certainly some important issues that need to be dealt with but trying to infuriate people by claiming that government wants to hurt or undermine our yeshiva system is not at all helpful on any level.
Scare tactics such as opinion pieces in the press warning that the yeshiva community children are under siege by the education department and declaring public fast days on days that we were scheduled to fast anyway according to our calendar do more harm than good. What is needed most is for cool heads to prevail and for communications to be established where there previously may have been an information vacuum. We have been speaking with school officials and those with the long view of the issues that will benefit the overall community in the near future.
It seems that in all the back and forth between education officials and community leaders, lost in the shuffle is the fact that overall, yeshivos outperform most public schools by significant margins. That being what it is, what type of improvements is the state actually seeking?
When new education guidelines for yeshivos were issued by Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia, the first and most extreme reaction was to the erroneous information that yeshivos would be required to provide more daily hours of secular education than the public schools. According to Richard Altabe, the principal of the HALB Lower School (elementary), all schools that are Regent accredited are exempt from the new guidelines and more than 95% of our yeshivos are already in compliance with no new or further action needed.
It is in the best interest of anyone who sends their children to yeshivos to be in compliance with state guidelines—so long as they are deemed fair and reasonable—so that groups like Teach NYS of the Orthodox Union can continue their work of convincing government to pay half of our tuition bills for our children’s yeshiva education.
That may sound to many like a longshot but it has never been more possible than it is today. Firstly, in New York alone there are about 200,000 students who attend yeshiva. This represents thousands of families filled with voters who, like all voters, will be asked to vote for candidates who best represent the issues and policies that are most important to us.
We have to allow our responsible representatives to conduct conversations with education officials without background noise about antisemitism and pogroms. Those who edit and publish these newspapers and magazines with screaming and provocative headlines about people desiring in one way or another to hurt the Jewish community should know better. It may sell a few dozen additional issues of that week’s paper or magazine but in the long run it does more damage than anything else.