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The Fight Over Religious Education

Debates between New York state and its Hasidic community about school choice offer a harbinger of what’s to come nationwide

Ray Domanico
April 26, 2023
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The debate in New York state surrounding a state law that requires private and religious schools to provide a curriculum that is “substantially equivalent” to that provided in the local public schools first began in 2015. A group called Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED) petitioned education officials to look into what they claimed was the lack of substantial equivalence at 39 Brooklyn yeshivas for boys located in Hasidic or Haredi neighborhoods. Their complaint resonated with many in New York, including the editorial boards of the city’s three major dailies, who wrote in favor of investigating these schools to assure that their students were getting a full secular education alongside their religious studies. It quickly became an issue of national concern.

On March 23, 2023, a trial court in New York invalidated the enforcement mechanism embedded in these regulations, pointing out that the state’s compulsory education law is meant to be enforced by parents, not schools. It found that a family could be deemed in compliance with compulsory education by sending their children to a religious school while also filing a home-schooling plan with their local district indicating how their children would be meeting the requirements of the substantial equivalence law. It remains to be seen if this ruling will be appealed.

Whatever the outcome in New York, the “substantial equivalency” conflict between those advocating for the rights of parents and those opposing public investment in private education is sure to repeat itself in states like Arizona, West Virginia, Florida, and Arkansas, where recently enacted school choice programs will allow religiously inclined parents to place their children in schools that reflect their practices and beliefs—with public money to follow. The stakes of the debate are considerable, with billions of dollars and the deeply held beliefs of millions of Americans hanging in the balance.

The most recent estimate, from 2019, indicates that over 93,000 students in New York City attended schools considered Hasidic and another 47,000 did so in five counties outside of New York City. Parents freely choose and pay tuition to these schools. It is true that some graduates of these schools have been unhappy with the choices made by their parents, as are some current students and parents. While it is hard to know the exact percentages, it seems to be a relative fraction of the Hasidic community that oppose these education systems.

YAFFED, a group of Hasidic students, graduates, and parents in New York state, argues that parents in these communities face reproach if they opt out of these yeshivas. More importantly, YAFFED believes that the schools fail to provide boys with a sufficient education to prepare them for either college or the world of work. As a result, according to YAFFED, poverty and reliance on public assistance is rampant in Hasidic communities.

There is, to be sure, some poverty and reliance on public assistance in Hasidic communities in the state, and in some cases the poverty is extensive. New Square, New York, a town of roughly 10,000 Skverer Hasidim, is the poorest town in the state, with a poverty rate of 64%. But New York’s poverty extends far beyond these communities. In 2019, almost 14% of the state’s population lived in poverty; most of those living under the poverty line received nutrition assistance. Hasidic schools enroll less than 5% of the state’s students, so other schools must be producing significant numbers of students destined for poverty. For decades, the regents and the State Education Department have failed to break this public-school-to-poverty pipeline, yet they are now leaning on the yeshivas to follow a curriculum like that used in the public schools.

It is also true that some Hasidic schools do not offer education in secular subjects and that others attempt to provide the bare minimum with support provided through Federal Title I programs for eligible students. They all provide a classical Jewish education that features intensive instruction in Torah studies and a strong focus on Talmud, in which the boys and young men decipher and analyze competing commentaries on the scriptures in Hebrew and Aramaic. This is not the rote memorization of prayers; it is textual analysis of complex writings. Public schools often adopt “critical thinking” as a goal for their students, but many of them do not ground their students in either enough cultural literacy or advanced thinking skills to meet that goal. Among the three Brooklyn yeshivas I visited, only one does not teach any secular subjects, but its Talmudic studies classes evidenced intense discussion of complex questions related to how people should relate to each other and one’s responsibilities to others in various circumstances. That is a good anchor for raising educated, responsible adults.

These schools also maintain extraordinarily high standards of their own. Some of them expect their students to be fluent Hebrew readers by the end of grade one and test them regularly throughout grade two to gauge their proficiency. The state of New York does not test public school students on English reading proficiency until grade three, and the statewide results are middling at best.

The yeshivas that teach students from Yiddish-speaking homes offer more complicated cases, and the shortcomings in their secular programs yield graduates who are not English proficient. Presumably this limits their ability to interact with the larger secular world, to find certain forms of employment, or to pursue higher secular education without remediation, but one does meet adults who came through these schools and who have gone on to law school or other professional training.

For decades, the regents and the State Education Department have failed to break this public-school-to-poverty pipeline, yet they are now leaning on the yeshivas to follow a curriculum like that used in the public schools.

It should also be noted that many Jewish day schools in the modern Orthodox and centrist Orthodox traditions feel that they fulfill their religious obligations with their Talmudic studies while also providing their students with a full range of high-level academic instruction in secular studies. Why are the Hasidic schools in question so insistent in limiting secular studies? As a father of children in such a school explained to me “the answer boils down to the idea that these fleeting early years of education, when children are impressionable and sensitive to everything they see, hear, and are taught, should be grounded in a classical, purely Jewish education.” This principle, they explained, is accentuated by the disintegrating state of society at large; Hasidic parents seek to create and foster a solid Jewish religious foundation during these crucial years of schooling before they enter the world. This traditional form of full immersion in Jewish studies has served their community well through many centuries of trials and tribulations in the diaspora. Contrary to the way these communities have been portrayed, multiple schools serve each Hasidic community, so parents are free to choose the level of secular education they desire for their children.

The question for New York’s education officials now is how to best serve these religious communities who are their constituents. A court has ruled that the state cannot shutter schools which don’t provide a substantially equivalent education, but that they can impose fines or threaten prison to parents who are not ensuring that their children are receiving a substantially equivalent education. Are the state and city education agencies really going to impose sanctions on the many parents who are happy with the educational choices that they have freely made? Some schools might be able to document substantial equivalence with changes at the margins, but those changes will not likely satisfy those most opposed to the educational practices of these schools.

Some schools that offer no secular studies, like the one I visited, may become the locus of a case before the Supreme Court, which in 1972 gave Amish communities an exemption to Wisconsin’s compulsory education law, allowing them to opt their children out of high school, citing the uniqueness and self-sufficiency of the Amish community. The Hasidim of today might just rise to that same standard of uniqueness and self-sufficiency.

Ray Domanico is Senior Fellow and Director, Education Policy at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. For over 40 years he has studied education in the public, private, and charter sectors in pursuit of greater educational opportunity and choice for all communities.

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