Friday, December 21, 2018

State education mandate angers yeshivas 

The state’s effort to ensure that religious schools are teaching core academic subjects has set off a fierce backlash in Kiryas Joel and other Orthodox communities in New York, outraging parents who see the mandate as a threat to Torah-focused education and their culture.

As of Thursday, more than 55,000 people had signed an online petition from yeshiva parents to declare their opposition to the new enforcement push announced last month by the Education Department. The petition tells Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia: “We trust our Rabbis, our principals, and our leaders to create the school schedule and curriculum that works best for our children.”

The state has ordered that all nonpublic schools in New York undergo reviews to verify they are providing a “substantially equivalent” education to that of public schools, a longstanding requirement in state law. Schools that are found not to be spending enough classroom time on English, math and other secular subjects are expected to correct those deficiencies, and risk losing state funding for textbooks and busing if they don’t.

Yeshiva parents are objecting to what they see as government interference and a violation of religious rights. They also have zeroed in on what they say are excessive demands in the state guidelines, which appear to require seven hours per day of secular instruction for grades 5-8.

Rabbi Yoel Loeb, who has eight children attending Hasidic schools in the Kiryas Joel area and has lobbied Elia to preserve that teaching tradition, gathered with other opponents on Thursday outside the Education Department in Albany, where the department held its first training session with school administrators to implement the new policy.

He said earlier in an interview that the Hasidic community can’t compromise with state officials on its intensive religious study, which he said was the secret to its cohesion and durability.

“This is the only way the Jewish religion will survive for the next generations,” he said.

Loeb also pointed to the low levels of crime and drug abuse in Orthodox communities as evidence of the effectiveness of their schools.

Satmar Grand Rebbe Aaron Teitelbaum, leader of the Satmar Hasidic branch that makes up a majority in Kiryas Joel, vowed defiance of the Education Department in a speech in Yiddish to throngs of followers in Brooklyn last month. “We accuse the state education commissioner of harassing all God-fearing Jews, the Jews who want to educate their sons and daughters in the ways of Torah that we have received, generation after generation, from our rabbis,” Teitelbaum said, according to an English translation.

Kiryas Joel School Superintendent Joel Petlin, who runs the village’s public school for special-needs students and will be in charge of reviewing Kiryas Joel’s yeshivas, gave a prepared statement in response to the petition drive: “I recognize the backlash from the religious school community, and I’m hopeful that the Education Department and Legislature will devise a method by which education programs can be measured, and improvements can be made in private schools, while protecting the rights of parents to educate children in the religious schools of their choice.”

The New York State Catholic Conference welcomed the state’s scrutiny of Catholic schools, saying their test scores and graduation and college-placement rates often exceed those of public schools. But it wants the Education Department to conduct the reviews, not the school districts in which they are located.

Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, said in a statement: “We are eager to demonstrate our success to parents and New York State, but it is unacceptable for local public school boards, which are competitors, to have authority over the operations of our schools.”


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