NY state court ruling shifts burden for secular studies from yeshivas to parents

NEW YORK (JTA) — What should happen when she doesn’t teach the legally required amount of secular studies to her students? And who should be responsible: the school, or the parents who chose it?

Those two questions were at the heart of a bombshell ruling in New York state court last week that, if it stands, will transform how the state can regulate private schools. It also poses a challenge to advocates for increased secular education in yeshivas, who have spent years pushing the state to enforce its standards more strictly in schools.

This is the latest major development in a years-long battle between an education department that seeks to force secular education standards on private schools and Haredi Orthodox yeshivas that are resisting state coercion.

In a trial that pitted some yeshivas and their advocates against the state education department, a judge in Albany ruled that the state no longer has the power to effectively force yeshivas to close for not teaching secular studies in a way that is “equivalent to substantial” with it. public school education. According to the ruling, state law says it is the responsibility of parents, not schools, to ensure that children receive a “substantially equivalent” secular education.

But the court also ruled that the educational requirements themselves remain. The Yeshivas and their supporters took the department to court, hoping the judge would completely strike down the regulations mandating secular education standards.

Both advocates and critics of the yeshivas are celebrating parts of the ruling and lamenting others. What is clear is that the state mechanism for enforcing secular education standards in private schools will have to change, although it remains to be seen what form it will take.

A Jewish boy outside Yeshivah of Flatbush in the New York borough of Brooklyn, April 26, 2018. (AP/Mark Lennihan)

“It highlights and notes that the statute itself requires parents to ensure that their children receive a substantially equal education, but it does not oblige the schools to provide that,” said Michael Helfand, scholar of religious and religious law. freedom at Pepperdine University, explaining the ruling. “If that is the case, there is no authority under the statute to close the school because the school has failed to provide a ‘substantially equivalent’ education.”

The regulations in question were approved in September, shortly after the New York Times published the first in a series of articles investigating Hasidic yeshivas, reporting that some received public funding but not much less. nor secular education requirements. The yeshivas, and representatives of the wider Orthodox Haredi community, rejected the articles as biased and inaccurate.

According to the new regulations, if Yeshivas (or other private schools) did not provide their students with a “substantially equivalent” secular education, the state could force parents to deregister their children and send them to school that meet the state’s standards — forcing parents. the school to be closed.

The judge who wrote last week’s ruling, Christina Ryba, found that “certain parts of the New Regulations impose consequences and penalties on yeshivas beyond what is authorized by law”. Ryba wrote that the regulations violate the state’s authority by forcing parents to withdraw their children.

She added that state law does not mandate that children must receive the necessary secular education “through one source of instruction provided in one location.” She added that if children are not receiving the necessary instruction at yeshivas, they can still receive it elsewhere, in the form of “additional instruction that specifically addresses any known deficiencies.”

The meaning of that ruling, Helfand said, is that the state will have to tackle other methods to implement those standards, such as “attaching specific requirements to the way schools receive funding.” . The state could also investigate parents, not schools — which he described as a much more difficult undertaking.

“It then needed to slowly but surely make its way through each individual family or each individual child [and] ask questions about what they are being asked,” he said. “It is very difficult to see exactly how the New York State Department of Education could, given this rule, ensure that every child is receiving a basic education.”

A yeshiva school bus in Brooklyn, New York City, November 6, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

For Yeshivas and their supporters, he said, “It is not the constitutional victory that some had hoped for but a very practical victory that could ultimately hinder the state’s ability to impose significant regulation.”

That’s how yeshivas’ advocates – including parties to the petition – seem to be reading this ruling. A statement from Parents for Education and Religious Freedom in Schools, known as PEARLS, one of the petitioners, said the ruling “gives parents the right to send their children to the school of their choice. …In short, it provides both parents and parochial schools with the independence and protections that the regulations sought to take away.”

Another yeshivas advocate who was a party to the case, the Haredi umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America, saw that the ruling was not “a complete victory for many people. [praying] for,” according to a statement, because he did not completely overturn last year’s regulations. But the group was grateful that Ryba ended the “massive overreach sought by the Regulations,” including “the prospect of forced school closures.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel, told JTA that the organization was “obviously relieved” by the ruling but feels the battle is not over. At the beginning of the year, Agudath Israel launched a campaign called “Know Us” that aims to counter what it calls The New York Times’ “smear campaign.”

“But with elements out there pushing yeshivos to adopt their own personal educational philosophy, we remain wary of any future attempts to limit parental autonomy,” Shafran wrote in an email.

While Agudath Israel may see the ruling as a partial victory, secular education advocates do not necessarily see it as a total victory. Young Advocates for Equity Education, known as YAFFED, which submitted an amicus brief to the court in support of the Department of Education, said in a press release that the ruling “is of great concern to all parents who have children in non-public schools them. ” Beatrice Weber, executive director of YAFFED, said the ruling will require the group to change its strategy, which until now has focused on forcing schools to teach secular studies.

But she is pleased that the basic requirement to provide parents with a threshold level of secular studies remains — and she doubts that Haredi communities will take the risk of asking parents to violate that requirement en masse. In the end, she believes that more yeshivas will, in fact, “significantly” succeed in removing that risk.

“This victory that they’re celebrating is really putting them in this corner,” Weber said. “It will be interesting to see what they decide to do but there will be no demand [the regulations] violation of religious freedom – none of that was accepted.”

Illustrations: A man walks past a school bus with Yiddish signs in Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York City, January 1, 2014. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Weber admits that the burden of secular education has now shifted to parents, and “there’s not going to be someone knocking on every door” to make sure parents comply. But she noted that many Haredi families interact with the state because they receive forms of public assistance, which she said could provide a built-in mechanism to pressure them to conform.

“Any time they contact the government that could come up,” she said. “A lot of Hasidic families deal with a lot of government programs — whether it’s Medicaid, whether it’s food stamps. I can’t see community leadership just saying, ‘Whatever, let the families figure it out.’”

A spokesman for the state education department declined to say whether the state plans to appeal the decision, or what it means for future oversight of yeshivas. But in a statement, the department said “the ruling confirms the department’s commitment to improving the educational experience of all students.”

The statement added: “We remain committed to ensuring that students who attend school in settings consistent with their religious and cultural beliefs and values ​​receive the education to which they are legally entitled.”

Whatever comes next, Helfand says the ruling shows a new way to read the law that, for years, has driven tension between the state and yeshivas.

“I would hope that people who read the statute would not really distinguish between whether ‘substantial equivalence’ is a parental obligation or a school obligation,” he said. “The fact that the court so clearly noted that this is a parental duty as opposed to a school and was willing to cut the duty in such a precise way – I think that’s something we haven’t seen before.”

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