By Richard Altabe
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.