Gotham Gazette

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No More Baby Steps: Commissioner Rosa Must End the Yeshiva-Gate Scandal

Mayor de Blasio in Williamsburg (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa’s demand for June completion of New York City yeshiva investigations is a step in the right direction. But her order will be hollow unless deficiencies are quickly addressed. Every day that ultra-Orthodox yeshivas fail to provide substantially equivalent secular instruction to their students is a day that those children are deprived of their legally guaranteed educational rights.

What The Daily News criticizes as “slow motion” progress is insufficient, demonstrated by the recent case of Yeshiva Mesivta Arugath Habosem (YMAH) in Brooklyn, where after years of delayed investigations and months after Commissioner Rosa finally determined YMAH is violating state education law, no meaningful improvements have occurred.

Last October, after a lengthy legal case, Commissioner Rosa ruled that, contrary to New York City Department of Education findings, YMAH doesn’t provide required secular instruction, such as English Language Arts, science, math, social studies, and other mandated subjects. A corrective plan was ordered by December. Yet the Commissioner’s detailed twelve-page decision was cynically met by YMAH with a mere three-page, widely-spaced response more intent on delay than meeting the educational standards itemized in the decision.

That plan, I said, “could have been written on a napkin during a quick lunch.” It is devoid of even the most basic structure of the school day, daily or weekly hours of instruction in the required subject areas, the scope and sequence of topics in each instructional area, and the specific qualifications needed to teach them. Merely parroting words plucked from the commissioner’s decision and relevant regulations, the napkin plan attaches speculative dates for delivery without explaining the process or sources through which deadlines will be attained, making a mockery of a timeline that extends well into next year prior to implementation and eventual evaluation.

Perhaps most astounding, the plan includes the mystifying passage that “connections to particular lessons in Judaic Studies will be identified to demonstrate how the Judaic Studies curriculum satisfies learning standards” and that “Judaic studies curricular materials will be included,” raising the question of whether YMAH intends a separate secular studies program at all.

Yet, despite its empty substance and extended timelines, Commissioner Rosa still has not ruled on the so-called napkin plan, allowing YMAH to shrug off the legal and ethical duties that the commissioner demanded.

That same scenario is playing out again with the commissioner’s new order for New York City to complete other investigations by June. These have been delayed since a complaint was filed by Yaffed, an advocacy organization, in 2015. The city’s Department of Investigation determined that the de Blasio administration obstructed the task for political purposes, words also used in the state education commissioner’s latest order concerning Mayor Adams’ conduct. Yet, incredibly, the commissioner is still depending on the city to conduct a timely review.

Moreover, the DOE’s previous examination of YMAH gave it a clean bill of health, requiring the state commissioner herself to visit and overturn that decision! Why should the city continue to be trusted with this investigatory function when it has demonstrably failed to hold yeshivas accountable for providing the sound, basic education required by the state constitution?

So, come June, the scenario of questionable city investigations will be repeated with no promise that the State Education Department will adequately review its results. And even if it does, more time will be lost with further letters of demand from the commissioner and more napkin plans submitted for further review and, best case, slow-motion implementation.

This chicanery, robbing children of required instruction in math, reading, history, and science, must end. The public has lost faith in government because of farcical cycles of buck-passing where nothing is accomplished. The commissioner’s “enough is enough” is not good enough. It extends good faith to bad actors at the cost of educational justice and public confidence. That price is too high. State Ed has to send its own independent experts into the yeshivas, make rapid detailed evaluations of any deficiencies, and institute immediate reforms consistent with state law.

Enough is enough.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center. On Twitter @BloomfieldDavid.

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