Wednesday, June 16, 2021
New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang recently made waves when he declared that the city "shouldn't interfere" with Orthodox Jewish schools "as long as the outcomes are good." Yang's position is very different from the one that some activist groups have pushed in recent years. Critics claim that many such yeshivas do not offer enough secular education to satisfy New York's requirements and to prepare their students for the workforce.
But Yang got this right. Even if some Jewish schools do not teach the same content as public schools, if, as Yang put it, their outcomes are good, the city should let them be.
First, the criticisms of New York's yeshivas are empirically unsound. Reports of minimal secular education across New York's Yeshivas confuse the exceptions for the rule. Over 170,000 students attend hundreds of Orthodox Jewish Schools in New York. Most of these schools offer a robust secular studies curriculum. Even the few Hasidic schools that don't still provide an intellectually rigorous education; they simply prioritize religious studies over secular equivalents.
As Yang—who is famously data-driven—certainly realizes, no data support the view that outcomes are poor for students in Hasidic schools. While data about Hasidic economic and educational outcomes are limited, the information available does not suggest that Hasidim are particularly disadvantaged economically. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, average household incomes in Williamsburg and Borough Park in Brooklyn (home to many of New York City's Hasidim) are 9th and 29th highest out of 50 districts city-wide. So too, it's not clear that Hasidic students — who are largely English Language Learners (ELL) since their first language is usually Yiddish — would fare any better in public schools. For example, 8th grade ELL students in the Williamsburg public schools (where many Hasidim live) had a zero percent proficiency rate in math and English in 2016, according to the city's own data.
Most importantly, the criticisms misstate both the law and the philosophical problems that underlie it. American law balances a real tension between two competing values: parents' right to educate their children as they see fit and the state's right to ensure a reasonable education for all children. As far back as 1925, the Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters recognized the unique role that parents play in their children's education. In 1972, the Supreme Court's ruling in Wisconsin v. Yoder made clear that when mandatory education laws would destroy a viable religious community, the state must back off to allow the community to function, even at the expense of the model of education that the state prefers.
New York codifies this balance using the phrase "substantial equivalence." Private school education must be substantially equivalent to – but not necessarily identical with – public school education. (See "New York State Cracks Down on Religious Schools," Fall 2019.)
For over a century, this New York standard lay dormant. In 2018, the state responded to complaints about some Hasidic yeshivas in New York by redefining "equivalence" to mean that private schools must offer a wide range of specific subjects for specific periods of time each day. Many private schools objected, and a trial court rejected this approach as administratively over-broad. Had the regulations stood, they would have transformed private school education in the state by requiring private schools to reproduce public education, rather than fulfilling their own unique missions.
Resolving this legal problem requires thinking through some fundamental questions. Why should the state regulate education? To produce law-abiding citizens? To teach students how to think? To ensure their personal happiness? To train them for sustainable jobs?
By the most important of these metrics — what Yang calls "good outcomes" — Hasidic schools pass with flying colors. They offer a deep and rich education that emphasizes text comprehension and analytic thinking, even if the context for these skills is very different from that found in public schools. They produce graduates who live in stable communities: Hasidic populations report low levels of violent crime, and a high degree of family and social cohesion.
Hasidic culture is different, even strange, to many Americans. But that does not make Hasidic life any less valuable and productive. It is parochial to assume that the only life of value is one that aims for the Ivy League.
No one cultural or educational model is "right" or "wrong." Use of education law to mandate schooling that conflicts with religious faith is exactly what our constitutional system opposes. And for good reason: forcing parents into an educational model that they religiously oppose is unlikely to succeed. Private schools subsidize public education since parents pay taxes towards the schools, but do not send their children to them (to the tune of $7 billion a year in New York City, since NYC spends $28,000 per student in public school and 256,000 NYC students go to private schools). We should use some of those savings to help Hasidic yeshivas improve in ways that match the values of society at large without undermining religious values they hold dear.
In an environment of increasing antisemitism, and after two years of near daily physical and verbal attacks on Hasidic Jews, does it make sense to single out this community's schools alone for special condemnation, particularly when the city's public schools are often doing no better a job?
In a multicultural society, we must all make room for each other and for our diverse values. While most Americans will attend public schools, private schools (particularly parochial schools), exist to provide other kinds of education – in Mandarin or Yiddish, focusing on Native American culture or Talmudic law, providing an Amish or Catholic view of the world.
Rather than mandating conformity, New York should support reasonable educational rubrics —ones that are consistent with each religious community's values, and that, as Yang suggests, produce good outcomes. Carrots from government, rather than sticks, need to be used to achieve those goals.
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