By Richard Altabe
More than 125,000 private and religious school parents, alumni, educators, and others have submitted comments to the state education department opposed to the proposed new regulations for non-public schools. The New York State School Board Association sent in a letter of protest, as did over 60 Harvard Law School graduates who attended yeshivas.
If you are one of those who submitted, your efforts are to be commended. If you are still wondering what the commotion is all about, this article is for you.
The regulations recently proposed by the New York State Education Department threaten our ability as parents to choose the educational direction for our children. We pay a premium for our choice — in many cases our tuition exceeds our mortgage payments! Yet we do so in an effort to give our children the best opportunities to succeed — as Jews and as citizens of the United States.
In the past few months I have heard from dozens of people all too willing to accept the narrative that only schools in Boro Park and Williamsburg with a very different hashkafah than ours have reason to be concerned. It is not so. We might not agree with the scope of the secular instruction offered in those schools, but that does not mean that we should quietly accept handing the state control of our schools’ curriculum and schedule.
If one reads the proposed regulations carefully, it becomes clear that they are less a push to improve educational outcomes and more an effort to control all of our schools. They require all private schools to offer something called a “unit of study” for particular classes in certain grades. A unit of study is a prescribed number of minutes required for instruction in a particular subject. The state has determined that a unit of study is equal to 180 minutes a week of instruction.
At issue for elite private schools is the notion that an outside body (in this case the State of New York) should be able to determine the number of minutes of instruction required for a particular subject. Every school should be free to address basic standards in core subjects in the manner that best fits its mission and focus. (A school dedicated to the sciences might want to integrate ELA instruction into its science program and a school that focuses on the humanities might want to integrate science into its ELA program). To most educators, the metric for success is the educational outcome of the instruction, not the input.
Our yeshiva students locally have some of the best Regents scores in the entire State of New York. A recent Jewish Press article found that 19 of the top 20 average scores on the English Regents were achieved by yeshivas. Many of our local schools made the top 20. Every school in our area performed well above the state average. However, because the state is focused on the inputs—the number of minutes of instruction—a school with less than 180 minutes of instruction in a core subject will still be cited as non-compliant.
Had the units of instruction been confined to basic core subjects like math, science, social studies, and English, local schools might not have faced as much of an issue with the proposed regulations. However, the proposed regulations also require that all private schools devote a minimum of 90 minutes a week to the following subjects: occupational studies, career and technical education, visual arts, music, health education, and physical education.
Given the dual curriculum offered in all of our yeshivas, it would be impossible to fit these additional courses into the school day for the length of time required. While many schools offer elective periods for music and art, few offer these subjects for 90 minutes a week. This puts every school in our community at risk of being declared out of compliance even while we produce stellar graduates in every possible field of endeavor.
The guidelines further mandate inspections of every private school in New York State over the next three years. Those deemed out of compliance are threatened with closure. Even schools that accept no funding from the State of New York are at risk of closure under these proposed new regulations. Parents who keep children enrolled in schools that are non-compliant are even threatened with truancy charges in family court. Are we prepared to sit idly while the state threatens parents with action in family court as a means of enforcing its takeover of our schools?
Given the overwhelming success of the majority of our students from the majority of our schools, one wonders why the state has jumped on this issue in such an aggressive fashion. There are dozens of failing public schools throughout the state that receive support and funding to promote educational change. If the goal is to improve the minority of our schools that are educationally deficient, why not work with them instead of threatening them?
Parents should have a right to choose the educational system that best fits with the upbringing they want for their child. On the whole, our Jewish community values a balance between Judaic and secular studies and each group within our community should have the right to choose the balance that best fits their specific religious outlook. The state should continue to establish educational standards but they must be flexible, and schools should be allowed to implement those standards in ways that match its mission as set by its lay and rabbinic leadership.
Now that the comment period has ended, the State Education Department must respond to the comments. Advocacy groups are hoping that members of the Board of Regents will take the time to visit yeshivas across the state to get a better sense of the type of education offered across the spectrum of our schools. It is also hoped that the Regents will seek the input of non-public-school educators in coming up with an approach that focuses on outcomes rather than inputs.
We do not know at this point what the Board of Regents will do. Let us hope that their course of action will reflect the concerns we voiced in the past 60 days.