Kids in Brooklyn (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)
Just when you thought the world of New York City yeshiva education couldn’t get any more like “Alice in Wonderland,” along comes a new ruling by New York State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa that, in Lewis Carroll's words, just makes the years-long dispute over lack of secular education at Hasidic yeshivas "curiouser and curiouser."
Here’s the background: In September 2019, the mother of an eight-year-old boy attending a Brooklyn yeshiva filed a petition with Commissioner Rosa. The mother claimed that the New York City Department of Education (DOE) and the yeshiva are violating state law because her son was not receiving anything approaching the "substantially equivalent" secular education required by state education law on required instruction and patriotism & citizenship.
The mother submitted sworn testimony on her visit to the school. She told Commissioner Rosa that the yeshiva’s “Principal of English” admitted that the school only teaches “tidbits” of required English classes because there isn’t enough time in the day given the yeshiva’s almost exclusive focus on Jewish religious texts. The City admitted that it had no idea what was going on in the school and the yeshiva put in no evidence at all on what English classes it teaches, how it teaches them, or for how many hours (or minutes) a day.
But despite the uncontested evidence of state law violations and clear denial of the child's educational rights ("highly concerning," bemoaned the Commissioner), Rosa ruled that the State Education Department she runs lacks jurisdiction over the yeshiva when it comes to education; cannot investigate the mother’s allegations; and cannot force any changes at the school. Further, with topsy-turvy logic, the Commissioner conceded that while the Education Department has jurisdiction over yeshivas for some of their activities, it most certainly doesn’t have jurisdiction over the education they are (or are not) providing. Passing the hot potato back to the city, she said that responsibility rests solely with the DOE, which, according to the mayor's own Department of Investigation (DOI), delayed similar investigations Rosa now claims only the city can do. The DOI concluded that the City had improperly delayed similar investigations for years. Moreover, even when 26 of 28 investigated yeshivas were found in violation, the DOE never issued a final report, leaving the state education commissioner, in her self-paralyzing decree, without jurisdiction.
Not only is the Commissioner's decision educationally misguided, it is wrong on the law. State Education Law § 215 specifically empowers Commissioner Rosa to "visit, examine into and inspect" any school she wishes to; and it requires the school to report on any information requested. Violation of the request can lead to loss of "any of the rights and privileges of such institution,” including state funding.
Or consider this statutory requirement: “The commissioner shall be the entity that determines whether nonpublic elementary. . .schools are in compliance with the academic requirements” of substantial equivalency.
The law is clear: yeshiva kids must receive a secular education that is substantially equivalent to the education public school kids get. Period. The law has been on the books for over 100 years but no political or educational leader has shown the courage to face down the politically powerful yeshivas and their allies, groups that fight against any public agency looking into their instructional practices. And why do they fight so hard? Because the answer is so obvious: the yeshivas are in blatant violation of the Education Law and they don’t want the truth to come out.
Now Commissioner Rosa can add her name to the many Profiles in Cowardice. It’s not her first time: just last week she abandoned substantial equivalence regulations that had been three years in the making. Rosa’s refusal to investigate the specific charges against a single yeshiva by a parent consistent with administrative procedures is an abdication of her powers and, without such intervention, the parent's plea will go unremedied.
Justice delayed is justice denied. In a modern version of the Biblical story, David here is a mother protecting her son's right to learn English, History, Science, Math, and the Arts. Goliath is the voting bloc led by ultra-Orthodox yeshiva operators whose immense political strength protects them from legal compliance even as they feast on public funds. The mother's courageous stand supports family values, common sense, and her son’s clear legal and constitutional rights. Goliath must somehow fall again.
As a result, the parent is now appealing the Commissioner’s decision to a New York state trial judge. If politics, power, and emotions are set aside to make room for the law and the facts, Goliath should finally meet his match. And the eight-year-old child at the complaint's center will finally get the education he and thousands of other ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students are owed under New York's Constitution and Education Law.
David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center. David J. Shapiro is petitioner's attorney in Appeal of B.W., Commissioner's Decision No. 17983.