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.
Update from Albany : Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Agudah’s representative in Albany, updates the Agudah Live audience on the new legislative session that just started.
Co-hosts Rabbi Avi Schnall and Rabbi Shai Markowitz discuss with him Agudah’s activities in the state capital, and get an update on the status of the New York State Education Department’s Substantial Equivalency issue.
Watch the latest episode of #AgudahLive
CLICK HERE OR IMAGE ABOVE TO WATCH
( https://vimeo.com/ 310357553 )
Also, you might remember our recent Agudah Live session about the threat to our Yeshivos with Mr. Richard Altabe , Lower Division Principal of Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (HALB). Here’s a recent letter to the editor that Mr. Altabe wrote about the issue – it’s definitely worth reading.
Letter to the Editor: School Crisis
By Richard Altabe in 5tjt.com
The editor of this paper is entitled to express his opinions , no matter how misguided, on the issue of New York State oversight of yeshivas .
What he may not do is to quote me out of context or erroneously use my words to support his view. In saying that “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 percent of our yeshivas are already in compliance with no new or further action needed,” he creates the impression that the concerns created by the recent commissioner’s guidelines are misplaced.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
At the first training for district superintendents in Albany, which I was invited to attend, the question was plainly put to the commissioner: “Are the associated elementary and middle schools of an accredited, Regents granting high school also exempt from inspection?” The answer was that although Regents accredited high schools are not going to be investigated, the elementary schools attached to the high schools still need to be evaluated.
Moreover, the New York State Education Department seems to have recently changed its policy for the registration of high schools. Registration no longer means, as it has for decades, that this status is granted indefinitely. According to the New York State Department of Education site, high schools are now “required to be re-visited every five years,” the same interval as equivalency of instruction inspections. We must point out the potential damaging regulatory changes that could be codified in education policy due to bureaucratic error or misunderstanding.
The arbiters of “substantial equivalence” will be local district superintendents. While we are blessed in School District 15 to have a wonderful superintendent who has regularly visited our schools and appreciates the value of the education we provide, not every school district can boast the same. Moreover, though the guidelines allow for Judaic subjects to be counted towards some of the requirements for substantial equivalence, how will public school officials be equipped to evaluate Gemara and other Judaic subjects to determine whether it can count as “equivalent?”
Further, the guidelines call upon a panoply of statutes and regulations, written by legislators, not educators. These legal strictures require that fifth graders, for example, receive theater, media arts, career development, occupational studies, health education, physical education, family science, consumer science, patriotism, citizenship, civility, tolerance and respect of all nationalities, gender identities and lifestyles, instruction in the worthy uses of leisure time, mental health, proper citizenship, and discussion of drug and alcohol use, interpersonal violence prevention, arson prevention, and more.
What is also not appreciated is that there is nothing preventing legislators from passing progressive legislation that forces religious schools to teach subjects antithetical to our religious beliefs. So, even if our schools are safe for now, once the door is opened for state oversight of our schools, we exist at the whims of the prevailing political winds.
To think that compliance with this guidance will lead to increased funding is absurd. Not one dollar of state money has been allocated to aid schools that might need help with meeting compliance standards. Unlike the funding that public schools receive if their schools are found to be deficient, the entire burden of compliance has been placed upon our schools.
I have met with the commissioner of education on several occasions, and I believe that she and her staff are rational, level-headed individuals who are simply looking to improve education and not unduly intrude on parental and religious rights. However, the process that has been proposed needs to be modified to ensure we are pursuing educational, not political, goals. One step in that direction might be, as many are advocating, accreditation through a neutral and state approved third party.
Some of the rhetoric surrounding this controversy has been unfortunate. Demonizing the state education commissioner will not lead to constructive solutions. However, our community must be vigilant and politically active. We need to be sure that we elect representatives who understand our yeshivas and who can advocate on our behalf. The strong support of our local elected officials is critical if we want our needs as a school community to be met. In School District 15 we need to demonstrate our overwhelming support of our current school board in this year’s elections.
This is not a time for belligerent protest; but neither is it a time for complacency. Our voice is best heard through the ballot box and our concerns should be directed at our elected officials. Those elected officials, such as Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato, Senator Joe Addabbo and NYC Councilman Donovan Richards, who have advocated loudly on our behalf, need to be thanked and encouraged for their work.
Richard Altabe is the principal of nursery through fifth grade at Hebrew Academy of Long Beach and Executive Vice President for Institutional Advancement.
He has been an educator and administrator for 30 years.