Gotham Gazette Sat, 21 Jul 2018 07:51:55 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Attacks on Yeshivas Present a Dangerous Slippery Slope eric ulrich1

Eric Ulrich, the author, right, and Cardinal Dolan (photo: @eric_ulrich)

In the coming months, the city and state education departments are expected to rule on an issue that may have huge repercussions for parental school choice and religious freedom. A small group of former yeshiva graduates have alleged that religious schools in Orthodox Jewish communities are failing to provide adequate education to students. As an avid supporter of parental choice, I worry education leaders will side with these critics, posing a threat to private schools well beyond the Jewish community.

Many years ago, I attended P.S. 63, an elementary school in Queens. My mother, a single parent and devout Catholic, made the decision to transfer me to the former Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary School, a Catholic elementary school. She wholeheartedly believed Catholic school was a better environment for me at the time – and it was. Appreciative of the opportunities Catholic school afforded me, I continued my religious education at Cathedral Prep Seminary High School.

As the product of both public school and Catholic school education, I recognize the importance of parental school choice. The values instilled in me through my religious upbringing and education paved the way for my career as a public servant. Attending Catholic school ignited my passion for helping people; and at one point in my life, I seriously contemplated becoming a priest. If my mother did not have the freedom to enroll me in the school of her choice, I might not have taken the path I’ve taken, which I have found extraordinary fulfilling.

During my time in office, I have visited many yeshiva schools. In each of those visits, I saw a vibrant atmosphere. It is clear to me the Orthodox community takes education seriously. The school day begins just after sunrise, and the majority of yeshiva students study long after they are dismissed. Their studies are deeply rooted in the Torah and Talmud, which encourage discussion and debate at a very young age. Their studies focus heavily upon religious and legal texts, and teachers employ a method of Socratic dialogue with students more commonly found at law schools. That may not be a familiar experience for graduates of traditional secular schools, but tens of thousands of parents choose these schools each year because yeshivas have served them – and their families – well for generations.

The narrow issue before officials is whether these yeshivas are adhering to a vague state regulation requiring private schools to provide a substantially equivalent education to that of public schools. What that means in practice is enormously subjective; private and religious schools throughout the state are awaiting the results of a looming “clarification” from the State Education Department with deep trepidation.

Government officials are being subjected to a pressure campaign by anti-yeshiva activists, who continuously attack the Orthodox Jewish community under the guise of educational quality. We must continue to protect freedom of religion and the rights of parents to send their children to religious schools – whether they are Catholic, Islamic, or Jewish. If we do not stand-up for yeshivas today, the future of other private schools may be next.

Eric Ulrich is a City Council member representing parts of Queens. On Twitter @eric_ulrich.

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Attacks on Yeshivas Present a Dangerous Slippery Slope Mon, 26 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Stop the Yeshiva Madness yeshiva kpc

(photo: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)

In recent weeks, the distortions and misinformation about the education our yeshivas provide to our students has grown exponentially. The absurdity hit a new high two weeks ago, when David Bloomfield argued in a Gotham Gazette op-ed that Mayor de Blasio and other elected officials could face arrest over the issue.

Two years ago, a former yeshiva student sent a short letter to the city’s Department of Education alleging that some 30 yeshivas did not offer any secular studies or any instruction in English. This, he said, ran afoul of a state requirement that private schools provide “substantially equivalency of instruction” to its students.

Yeshivas are religious schools whose goals and philosophy differ from public schools – and from one another. Bloomfield has spent much of his career at public institutions, so it is not surprising that he has some fundamental misunderstanding of yeshivas. There are more than 275 yeshivas in this city and they are as different from one another as they are similar.

Our yeshivas educate more than 110,000 students annually, and so it is also not surprising that some graduates are disaffected critics. But if Bloomfield is to be taken seriously, he can’t analyze by anecdote or use his lack of knowledge about our schools to spread innuendo.

Bloomfield probably teaches several dozen students a year, yet I’m sure he wouldn’t think it fair to be judged by those who thought his class was a waste of time. Yet Bloomfield has no problem judging a system of 275 independent schools with more than 100,000 students by a handful of dissatisfied alumni.

These critics released a deeply flawed, though widely-quoted, report asserting that our students aren’t learning, and that our graduates aren’t prepared for the workforce. Few if any of those who have cited the report have looked at it closely. If they did, they would realize that its methodology is more Survey Monkey than scholarship – it was based on a survey completed by 50 supposed yeshiva graduates who are Facebook friends with the author of the complaint letter to the City.

The report’s distortions were insulting to the thousands of families who send their children to yeshivas each day. We are enormously proud of the education our yeshivas provide. Our students attend school for 12 hours every day – a strikingly longer school day than required by most other districts. Yes, much of the day is devoted to study of Jewish law, consistent with a tradition stretching back a century. But our classrooms are filled with intellectual debate and academic rigor more common to colleges than middle schools. Our students are taught to analyze facts, debate ideas, challenge assumptions, and think critically. Our attendance and graduation rates exceed those of the public schools. Our graduates are integral to the fabric of our city’s economic life.

While Bloomfield is quick to reach snap conclusions about the mayor and yeshivas, he has much less to say about the performance of public school students. Let’s start with English Language Learners – those students for whom English is not the first language, similar to many Chasidic school students – in Brooklyn public schools. Bloomfield focuses on the performance of ELLs in Chasidic yeshivas but has nothing to say about the proficiency of ELLs in proximate public schools. That's a shame, because the performance results of ELLs on state-mandated tests for Districts 14 and 20 - where the vast majority of the yeshivas subject to the original complaint are located – are depressing. For most subjects and grade, the proficiency rate is in the single digits. Substantial equivalence indeed!    

Yeshivas can surely improve, but ultimately parents must have the right to choose how their children are educated. Every year, thousands of parents choose to send their children to yeshivas both for their unique curriculum and to avoid the failures of a public school system about which they have no desire to be “substantially equivalent.”

It is far easier to criticize than to understand. If critics want to be taken seriously by the institutions they hope to impact, they need to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the values that have helped yeshivas thrive, and they must refrain from defining a multi-faceted system of 275 schools and 100,000 students by what they perceive to be the weakest few schools and students.

Avi Greenstein is the Executive Director of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, a member of the executive committee of PEARLS, and a former principal at Yeshiva Imrei Yosef.

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Stop the Yeshiva Madness Wed, 20 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Yeshiva-Gate Could Imperil De Blasio’s Second Term de blasio israeli flag parade

Mayor de Blasio (photo via The Mayor's Office)

For Mayor de Blasio, controversy over some ultra-Orthodox Jewish day schools’ duty to provide students with required secular studies may turn into a significant second term scandal. Yeshiva-gate, as it could be called, may imperil de Blasio’s next four years, after the mayor kicked the can down the road throughout his first term, with a long-stalled investigation still incomplete.

The Mayor-controlled city Department of Education is obligated under State Education Law to assure that nonpublic schools within the district provide education “substantially equivalent in amount and quality” to requirements for public school students. This includes consistency with State Learning Standards for all children ages 6 – 16 in English, social studies, math, science, technology, visual arts and music, physical education, career and home studies, health, and library/information skills.

The Mayor understands this mandate, having stated at a recent town hall meeting, “We have a legal requirement to make sure that the proper education happens in every kind of school.”  

But a 86-page September report, “Non ≠ Equivalent,” by Yaffed, an advocacy organization, documents that a sub-group of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas provide far from adequate secular studies, with male adolescents especially short-changed. Many students have come forward attesting to the crippling economic and social effects of their inability to communicate in English and their ignorance of basic math, science, and technology. The Netflix documentary “One of Us,” as well as Yaffed-produced videos, present numerous heart-breaking examples of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas’ systemic flouting of the Education Law. Press exposés have appeared in the Times, Post, Daily News, NY1, and CBS, among others.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, a promised report by the Department of Education has failed to materialize. After over three years and numerous missed deadlines only six of the 39 schools supposedly under review have been visited and then only under strict yeshiva controls. The investigation has now taken more time than the Warren Report on the Kennedy assassination yet there is no end in sight.  Chancellor Carmen Fariña has repeatedly side-stepped the issue, dismissing criticism as politically-motivated.

Enter the New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. Last February, in People v. Flanagan, the Court interpreted the elements of Penal Law § 195.00, Official Misconduct. There, a student’s heist of $3,000 worth of school electrical equipment eventually led to the conviction of a high-ranking police official who failed to pursue the investigation on behalf of the student’s father, a friend. The Court held that “the defendant, acting alone and with others in his official capacity, caused the abdication of the inherent duty to investigate...where there was overwhelming evidence.” Sound familiar?

Further, the required mental state for conviction of Official Misconduct is “the intent to obtain a benefit or deprive another of a benefit.” Here the Mayor’s Yeshiva-gate actions fail both prongs. The yeshivas gain from the Mayor’s failure to assure legal compliance by continuing to receive millions of dollars in public aid provided to them for ostensibly secular purposes. For de Blasio, behind the thin veil of his dilatory investigation, is the clear benefit of Orthodox leaders’ electoral support, with thousands of bloc votes supplied by their followers. The other side of the coin is the deprivation to yeshiva students of mandated secular studies. Case law makes clear that the benefit and deprivation need not be monetary and the official’s actions don’t have to be successful. Just the attempt is enough.

A strong case can be made that the Mayor is guilty of illegal action (“malfeasance” in legal terms) and inaction (“nonfeasance”) in this respect, violating both subsections of Section 195.00. A Freedom of Information Law request by Yaffed for City communications on the yeshiva issue was filed years ago yet is still unanswered. If the FOILed documents are ever produced – or unearthed by prosecutors doing their job – they will likely reveal orders to stymie the DOE’s yeshiva report. Just as glaring is the Mayor’s obvious inaction, a crime since he has a duty to investigate, as in Flanagan.

Similar charges are viable under the related Penal Law, Obstruction of Government Operations. There appears to have been interference with the routine administration of required nonpublic school oversight. That, too, is a crime.

All of this makes de Blasio vulnerable to removal from office by the Governor under section 9 of the City Charter. While he might be sorely tempted, it is unlikely that Cuomo would take such a step after de Blasio’s re-election victory. Removal over Yeshiva-gate would also pit Cuomo against the Chasidic community, a statewide, as well as local, political force.

Should the Manhattan District Attorney, who has jurisdiction, bring and win a case carrying a jail term of up to a year, resignation under pressure could occur. De Blasio has escaped D.A. Cyrus Vance’s clutches before, coming close to breaking election laws and earning Vance's scorn but not charges. Now Vance is under greater pressure to prosecute the powerful. This time the Mayor may have stepped over the line.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership, Law and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of American Public Education Law, 3d edition and other works. On Twitter @BloomfieldDavid.

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Yeshiva-Gate Could Imperil De Blasio’s Second Term Sun, 03 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
As He Campaigns for Top Priorities, Many Wonder Where Cuomo is on DREAM Cuomo EITC

Gov. Cuomo on Sunday in Brooklyn (photo: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)

It was as if Gov. Andrew Cuomo was on the campaign trail again last week, visiting Long Island and Buffalo one day and then four churches and a Yeshiva in Brooklyn on another. Cuomo doesn't have to run for office again for another three years, of course, but his barnstorming last week was designed to promote what he's calling a top priority: passing a $150 million plan mostly aimed at giving tax credits to families whose children attend private and religious schools and to others who donate to those schools. The push is so campaign-like that Cuomo's visage is plastered across television screens in ads sponsored by supporters of the Parental Choice in Education Act.

As He Campaigns for Top Priorities, Many Wonder Where Cuomo is on DREAM Wed, 20 May 2015 02:19:57 +0000