(JLBWC Staff and combined sources) On November 20, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) issued its Substantial Equivalency Guidance regarding curriculum requirements for non-public schools. These guidelines were intended to ensure that nonpublic schools, including yeshivas and day schools, provide an education that is “substantially equivalent” to that of the public schools.
Defenders of the yeshiva system believe parents have the right to send their children to schools that provide a Jewish education consistent with their beliefs and traditions. There are nearly 275 Orthodox yeshivas in New York State, but some are Modern Orthodox schools that provide a full secular curriculum alongside religious studies. Although all the schools are private, they are not free of government oversight, as a state law currently on the books requires that instruction in nonpublic schools be substantially equivalent to the instruction given at public schools.
These guidelines expand that oversight. While the guidelines acknowledge that religious schools are different than public schools, they still require all religious schools to teach the same courses as the local public schools, and to devote the same amount of time to those subjects. Adding up all of the governmentally imposed subject and time requirements, yeshivas and day schools will have virtually no time left for Judaic subjects.
The guidelines further require school districts to review all religious schools over the next two and a half years, and then to reinspect all of the schools over the subsequent five years. If a school is found to be non-equivalent, parents will be given 30-45 days to transfer their children to a different school. After 30-45 days, the school will be defunded and the parents will be in violation of the truancy laws.
Rabbis have called this an unacceptable government intrusion into the autonomy of the yeshiva/day school system. A majority of New York City Council members have criticized these guidelines as well. In a letter spearheaded by Brooklyn Councilman Chaim Deutsch to the State Education Commissioner, Mary Ellen Elia, the State Education Department was criticized for its “unprecedented incursion into private schools’ curricula” and the “process with which these guidelines have been put forward.” This letter was signed by members of all faiths, representing a diverse set of communities.
Since the issuance of these guidelines, Teach NYS, a project of the Orthodox Union, has been working with its school partners, leadership and advocates in Albany to understand and begin to address these requirements and enforcement measures. It has pledged to keep the public informed as it moves forward.