By Marcy Farrell
5TJT online editor
State school authorities backed away from a proposal to increase requirements for general studies at private schools, saying during a meeting Monday that they were inundated with more than 140,000 letters and emails mostly critical of the plan.
Instead, state officials said they would meet again with private school leaders and advocates to broker a compromise.
“That is more than I’ve ever seen in my 13 years with the state Education Department — far more,” said Shannon Tahoe, the agency’s interim commissioner on Monday, referring to the negative responses.
Richard Altabe, principal of the lower school at Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, attended the Board of Governors meeting. “The 140,000 letters kind of flipped the switch in our direction,” Altabe said. “Everyone got upset: independent schools, Catholic schools, Jewish schools and Muslim schools. The letter campaign was so huge that it overwhelmed the Board.”
In recent months, the controversy over private school regulation, once limited to New York City and Rockland County, has spread to the rest of the state. Networks of Catholic schools and independent academies have joined with Orthodox schools in denouncing what they describe as state overreach.
“This is a case where the state is actively trying to control aspects of education that should be left to parents to decide,” Altabe said.
“I’m representing a school that exceeds the academic standards of most public schools in New York,” said Altabe. “But this is about preserving the independence of private and parochial schools and maintaining fundamental parental and religious rights.”
The impetus for the proposed new guidelines was a complaint filed in 2015 with New York City’s Department of Education by Young Advocates for a Fair Education (YAFFED), a group of 52 yeshiva graduates, parents and teachers.
The complaint said the students did not receive the “substantially equivalent” secular education to which they are entitled under a law from 1895. They say many Hasidic boys yeshivas provide students with an education exclusively focused on Talmudic studies, leaving them unprepared for adulthood.
Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, or PEARLS, was formed as a response to the 2015 complaint. PEARLS put out a call for yeshiva parents and community members to contact the New York State Education Department and oppose any secular studies requirements for private institutions.
“This was a huge intrusion into private parental rights to make educational decisions for their own children based on their beliefs,” Altabe said.
“PEARLS and other activists simply did not want a general policy, a one-size-fits-all solution, just because five schools were not doing what they needed right now to provide a substantially equivalent education.”
YAFFED leader Naftuli Moster, who grew up in Brooklyn and attended a hasidic yeshiva, criticized the state for dropping the ball on increasing the standards for secular studies at yeshivas.
“Every day we delay enforcement is another day children aren’t receiving the skills promised to them and their families,” Moster said.
Altabe stressed that the Board of Regents’ decision does not mean the issue is off the table.
“Just because they didn’t make a decision doesn’t mean they are going to forget about it. Offering a substantially equivalent education is still a New York law. I think the Board of Ed will meet with stakeholders – parents, principals, community members – and get a better sense of what we do in our yeshivas.”
Altabe believes the Orthodox community has more work to do.
“What surprised me was the difference in attitudes between members of board of regents who had spoken directly to yeshiva parents or who had read some of the letters. Board members who spoke to yeshiva parents seemed to grasp the idea that some of these substantially equivalent skills could be taught in other subjects.
“We need to do a better job telling people what we teach in limudei kodesh and how important learning Torah is for us as religious Jews. We also need to explain the advanced logic and study skills that are developed when one learns Gemara and Halacha, as much of this aligns with New York State learning standards”
State education officials did not say when they would meet with private school leaders and have not scheduled the issue for a future Board of Regents meeting.