Friday, January 18, 2019
A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by a Rockland County-based education advocacy group challenging the constitutionality of a newly amended state law that advocates say relaxed academic standards for Hasidic Jewish schools.
In a 35-page decision issued Wednesday, U.S. District Court Eastern District Judge Leo Glasser tossed the Young Advocates for Fair Education's lawsuit, saying the group had no standing to file it. A person or group has to be directly connected to and harmed by a situation to have legal "standing" to participate in a court case.
YAFFED sued the state in July 2018, claiming the change violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by giving special treatment to yeshivas and also guaranteeing that one of the metropolitan area's fastest growing student populations will continue to receive "a sub-standard secular education."
The measure, known as the Felder Amendment — named for state Sen. Simcha Felder — passed as part of the state budget in April 2018.
Some believed that the vaguely worded amendment would allow certain Hasidic yeshivas to be exempt from meeting state guidelines requiring they provide an education that is "substantially equivalent" to that of a public school.
As it turned out, when the state Education Department recently released new guidelines for enforcing the "substantial equivalency" law, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said the amendment did not affect state oversight of yeshivas. In fact, she said, it gave her final say over whether yeshivas comply with the law.
Glasser pointed to the recently modified state guidelines, saying he believes that "the new requirements would, if anything, subject schools covered by the Felder Amendment to a higher standard than non-covered schools."
In dismissing YAFFED's suit, Glasser wrote that YAFFED claimed it held standing "because it has spent significant efforts opposing the amendment, both in this court and through other avenues…and they've shifted valuable resources away from its traditional advocacy and education efforts."
"However, if the court were to accept this argument, it would be difficult to conceive of a case in which an organization or individual would not have standing to challenge a statute that they find politically or socially disagreeable," the judge wrote.
"What YAFFED essentially seeks is an advisory opinion as to the constitutionality of the Felder Amendment based on the possibility that the NYSED [New York State Education Department] might in the future apply it in a manner that disadvantages students at Hasidic yeshivas."
Naftuli Moster, YAFFED's founder, executive director and New City resident, said the group hasn't yet determined whether to appeal the decision.
"We are considering our next steps and will choose a strategy that allows us to continue pressing forward in reforming the unjust system," Moster said, vowing to continue "the fight on behalf of ultra-Orthodox children."
"The road to justice is a bumpy one, but justice ultimately wins," said Moster.
Moster, a yeshiva graduate, has said his own education was devoid of secular studies, an experience that he said is pretty standard for Hasidic boys. In 2012, he founded YAFFED to push for secular education at ultra-Orthodox schools.
YAFFED contends that without a proper academic education, students will find it more challenging to pursue higher education and careers, putting them at greater risk for reliance upon public assistance.
Yeshiva leaders have expressed concern that state mandated standards will intrude on religious traditions.
In November, the state issued its revised guidelines for public school districts to determine whether private schools within their boundaries are complying with state law when it comes to teaching subjects such as math, science and English. Schools districts are required to start conducting substantial equivalency reviews during the 2018-2019 school year of religious and independent schools.
Private schools that don't comply with state requests to improve academic instruction as part of a new review process could face sanctions that would, in the worst cases, effectively shut a school.
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