I’ve spoken often about a Tale of Two Cities [sic]. That inequality—that feeling of a few doing very well, while so many slip further behind—that is the defining challenge of our time. Because inequality in New York is not something that only threatens those who are struggling. The stakes are so high for every New Yorker. And making sure no son or daughter of New York falls behind defines the very promise of our city.
This excerpt from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s victory speech on November 6, 2013, describes the city’s economic divide but could easily apply to its educational divide. While New York City boasts some of the best public schools in the nation, it also contains some of the worst schools. More specifically, the city must take responsibility for failing to acknowledge how poorly its yeshivas have been educating students for decades.
Yeshivas are Orthodox Jewish schools ranging from elementary to college that separate classes by gender and teach several subjects in Hebrew. They primarily focus on the study of traditional religious texts—such as the Talmud and the Torah—but this religious focus doesn’t mean they’re allowed to skip secular education, especially given that these educational institutions are heavily funded by the government. The New York State Department of Education requires the instruction provided at nonpublic schools to be substantially equivalent to that of the local public school. This includes classes in “arithmetic, reading, spelling, writing, the English language, geography, United States history, civics, hygiene, physical training, the history of New York state, and science.”
Upon realizing the gaps in his and his peer’s yeshiva education, a former student named Naftuli Moster founded Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED) in 2012. Since then, YAFFED has collected stories from other former students, teachers, and parents describing the quality and content of the education. In an interview with me in August 2018, Moster explained that initial attempts to inform city officials of the issue in 2013 and 2014 were ignored because they were too general and didn’t name institutions. In a July 2015 letter to the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education YAFFED identified thirty-nine schools with poor records. After reviewing the letter, the chancellor notified the New York State commissioner of education that at these yeshivas:
English and mathematics are taught from around age seven to age thirteen, for an average combined time of only ninety minutes and on only four days a week. Other secular subjects are not taught at all, let alone in English. At these yeshivas, English instruction for boys stops at age thirteen. Girls generally receive a better secular education than boys but, we are still concerned that it is not sufficient to prepare them for their futures.
From 2015-2017 the New York City DOE met with superintendents of the listed schools, interviewed the complainants, and interviewed yeshiva leaders. The department consistently missed self-imposed deadlines to release reports on the investigations. YAFFED gathered testimonials and released its own report in 2017. The report found that the average yeshiva graduate
speaks little or no English, has few or no marketable skills, earns a household income well below the average Brooklynite’s, marries young and has many children, and is forced to rely upon public assistance to support his large family.
The two main reasons yeshivas receive millions of dollars in government funding is to address household poverty levels and low class performance, creating a dangerous cycle for Hasidic Jewish families.
The yeshiva issue grew to a statewide concern on April 12, 2018, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo accepted a budget that included a last-minute amendment to the nonpublic school curriculum law. The Felder Amendment—proposed by New York State Senator Simcha Felder and ultra-Orthodox Jewish community leaders—provides special treatment to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and cuts down on instructional requirements. This violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution by allowing government to favor one religion over another. YAFFED filed a lawsuit in July 2018 against state officials alleging a lack of oversight of yeshivas and arguing the amendment needs to be removed from law.
In an August 2018 letter, New York City Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza informed New York State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia that all of the interviewed complainants reported that English was delayed until first grade (sometimes even later), that there was no instruction through a science curriculum (only a few experiments at some schools), that math was restricted to basic arithmetic (sometimes fractions), and that little to no history was taught. Of the thirty-nine listed schools in YAFFED’s letter, nine were removed from the investigation because they weren’t in the NYC DOE jurisdiction—outside of the city or not K-12—or supposedly no longer existed. Carranza has reported optimistically on the fifteen yeshivas that let officials in and agreed to improve, but he admits that it’s too early to tell if the changes are significant enough as the school has only provided outlines and samples of secular curriculum. He has asked for guidance on how to handle the remaining fifteen schools that haven’t allowed DOE officials inside.
One school removed from the list was United Talmudical Academy, which is located on a top floor of a building with a butcher shop on its ground level. City investigators must not have noticed the school’s mailbox or asked around to determine if classes are in fact held at the address associated with the school. Moster noted in our interview that the DOE didn’t consult with YAFFED before deciding to remove schools from the investigation list. Nor have investigators followed up on vetting how United Talmudical Academy received nearly $10 million in federal funding if it doesn’t exist.
“The idea that they will conduct one [scheduled] visit and somehow glean a lot from that is somewhat laughable,” said Moster, who is concerned the investigations have been more yeshiva-led than city-led. He noted that Carranza’s letter doesn’t include names of investigators, visiting officials, education experts, psychology professors, or anyone else in curriculum meetings. The report also doesn’t mention YAFFED as the organization that brought forward the complainants, it but does name Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools (PEARLS)—formed in 2016—as one organization working on new English and math curriculum for yeshivas that “align with the Common Core Learning Standards and use materials that are culturally sensitive to the values of the yeshivas.”
Tension has been rising in New York City as the New York Times published two opposing op-eds: one from its own editorial board blasting politicians for failing to challenge Orthodox leadership and one from PEARLS lawyer Avi Schick criticizing anyone who questions the yeshivas’ progress. Hopefully the curriculum developed by PEARLS will be substantially equivalent to that taught in well-performing public schools. Ideally, New York’s newfound awareness will ensure a fair education for yeshiva students.
Unlike most of the Establishment Clause issues the American Humanist Association takes on, this isn’t about keeping public schools religiously neutral. It’s about ensuring that all schools provide the essentials to help young people succeed in life. No matter where children live or what religion they follow, they deserve a well-rounded education. Make sure your legislators know that they’re responsible here, because an uneducated populace is everyone’s problem.