In 2015, concerned parents, teachers and former students filed a complaint to New York City’s Department of Education charging that 39 ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools in the city failed to give children a basic education, violating state law that requires instruction to be “substantially equivalent” to that in public schools.
Three years later, virtually nothing has been done to hold the schools to legal standards, as politicians have ducked their responsibility rather than challenge leaders of one of the city’s most powerful voting blocs. In a city with low turnout in primary elections, candidates often covet the support of Orthodox communities, which tend to vote based on the guidance of religious leaders.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration says it has visited only 15 of those schools, called yeshivas, and been denied access to 15 others. It said nine others that were subjects of the complaint were either closed or didn’t offer K-12 education. A lawyer for a group representing the schools denies that investigators were barred and said the accusations were unfounded.
In the schools that investigators did manage to visit, they essentially confirmed the critics’ complaints. Many of these schools receive public funding.
The only discernible action the administration has taken based on its desultory investigation has been to pass the buck. It wrote to the state Education Department this month, asking for guidance — something it could have done years ago.
Students at these Yeshivas receive little secular instruction in primary school, and some former students have said boys in particular receive even less after age 13. Administrators at the schools that investigators visited said the yeshivas had adopted a broader curriculum, but they provided the city with only an outline of the material.
In an op-ed in The Times earlier this year, Shulem Deen, who was raised in a Hasidic family but left the community, wrote that his yeshiva education left him bereft of even basic knowledge. He recalled students learning to sign their names in English for the first time at the age of 18, to prepare for their marriage licenses.
Mr. de Blasio told reporters recently, “Clearly there was room for improvement but I have to be straightforward and say there’s room for improvement in a lot of our traditional public schools, too.” Failing to make enough headway in one area is a peculiar excuse for failing to make headway in another.
Mr. de Blasio, who like many New York mayors has benefited from the backing of powerful Orthodox Jewish groups over the years, says he is balancing religious rights with the need for government oversight. “It has nothing to do with political support,” he said in an interview. In retrospect, he said, the city should have moved faster to inspect the yeshivas to which it was denied access: “We’re willing to be as aggressive as the state Education Department would allow us to be.” That’s an oddly passive response from a mayor who has fought aggressively to win control of the city’s schools from the state. And this is not the first time that city officials have acquiesced to demands from these groups, such as easing guidelines around a circumcision practice that health officials felt was dangerous.
The state has hardly done better. Earlier this year, State Senator Simcha Felder, who represents a largely Orthodox district in Brooklyn, held up the state’s nearly $170 billion budget until lawmakers agreed to loosen oversight of the yeshivas. Young Advocates for Fair Education, the group that filed the 2015 complaint, has sued to block the measure.
The failure of politicians to challenge Orthodox leaders denies some of the most vulnerable members of Orthodox communities government’s full protection. Officials have an obligation to ensure that every child in New York receives a sound education.
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