Spring Valley, NY 10977
Comments in Support of Proposed Rule ID# EDU-27-19-00010-P
I have been spending a good amount of time over the course of several years thinking about the issue of substantial equivalency for children in nonpublic schools. Please accept these extended comments which include citation of sources used to formulate my arguments.
My initial awareness that there was a deficit in the instruction in some religious schools, specifically some of the Hasidic boys’ schools, came about due to my activism and advocacy for improve quality of public education in the East Ramapo school district. As the chairman of the organization “East Ramapo Stakeholders for Public Education”, I interacted with current and former school administrators and board members on a regular basis.
What I learned was that there had been an arrangement between the administrators of local Hasidic schools and the administrators of the public school system. The Hasidic school administrators promised to use their influence to see that the school budget proposal was not voted down, and in return the administrators of the public schools agreed to look the other way at the lack of education happening in some Hasidic schools.
This arrangement fell apart in 2005, when longtime school board president Georgine Hyde was voted off the school board and a new majority representing yeshiva families took over the board. There was now no longer any possibility of an East Ramapo administrator investigating substantial equivalency, and school budgets began to be voted down. East Ramapo now has more failed school budgets than any other district in New York State.
The Power of Ten was the official media outlet of the Stakeholders; it has continued publication independently under my direction after the organization became inactive. Substantial equivalency has been a frequent topic. All editions of Power of Ten going back to 2011 are available on the web site: www.poweroften.us
- Legal requirement
International guidelines describe the right to an education as a basic human right. According to the Abidjan Principles, States have a human rights obligation to provide public education and to regulate private involvement in education. This is based on “a global consensus regarding the importance of the right to education … grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and elaborated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966.”
This obligation is also referred to and elaborated upon in the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education of 1960, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1965, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979, the Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities of 2006.
Five of the ten overarching principles in the Abidjan document deal directly with the issue of regulation of education in private settings and the accountability of the state to ensure education of children in private settings:
Overarching Principle 4. States must take all effective measures, including particularly the adoption and enforcement of effective regulatory measures, to ensure the realization of the right to education where private actors are involved in the provision of education.
Overarching Principle 7. States must put in place adequate mechanisms to ensure they are accountable for their obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to education, including their obligations in the context of the involvement of private actors in education.
Overarching Principle 8. States must regularly monitor compliance of public and private institutions with the right to education and ensure all public policies and practices related to this right comply with human rights principles.
Overarching Principle 9. States must ensure access to an effective remedy for violations of the right to education and for any human rights abuses by a private actor involved in education.
Overarching Principle 10. States should guarantee the effective implementation of these Guiding Principles by all appropriate means, including where necessary by adopting and enforcing the required legal and budgetary reforms.
New York State has a constitutional requirement that “The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.” (Art. XI, § 1)
New York State Education Law Section 3204 states that “The requirements of this section shall apply to such a minor, irrespective of the place of instruction” and that “Instruction given to a minor elsewhere than at a public school shall be at least substantially equivalent to the instruction given to minors of like age and attainments at the public schools of the city or district where the minor resides.”
Tens of thousands of children currently attend Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox yeshivas where the education offered has been alleged to be not even close to “substantially equivalent”. These allegations have now been corroborated by the New York City Department of Education, which launched an investigation in response to complaints by parents and students from dozens of Hasidic schools.
Because local school districts are particularly sensitive to political pressure from the users of nonpublic schools, they cannot be relied upon to independently enforce compliance with state law. Experience has shown that nonpublic administrators have successfully used their influence to prevent enforcement of regulatory measures that ensure the realization of the right to education where private actors are involved in the provision of education.
Ineffective enforcement is therefore a violation of the human rights of the children of the state of New York, as described in Overarching Principle 4 of the Abidjan Guidelines. Delegating the task to Local Districts without an adequate mechanism to hold them accountable violates children’s rights as described in Overarching Principle 7.
The regulations as proposed fall short of the necessary actions described in Overarching Principles 7, 8, and 10. Inspections every five years are not “adequate” to regularly “monitor compliance”. They do not “effectively guarantee implementation”.
Especially in light of the use of political blackmail in East Ramapo and the success of some schools in avoiding inspection by the city of New York in its investigation of complaints, the regulations as proposed are inadequate and will not be effective, and the State Education Department will continue to be a facilitator in the violation of the human rights of children and a violation of the state constitution and the laws of the state of New York.
- Arguments against equivalency
Several organizations have mobilized to oppose any enforcement of the substantial equivalency law. These include Agudath Israel, The New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents and the New York State Association of Independent Schools. It is not surprising that corporations facing increased scrutiny and accountability would oppose even the mildest of new regulations.
The arguments against these regulations fall into three broad categories: they are unnecessary because private schools are already offering adequate education, they are an infringement on parents’ rights to choose how much education to provide their children, and they are an unreasonable administrative burden on private schools.
The first two arguments obviously contradict each other. Children cannot be simultaneously getting the education and not getting it. The fact that opponents are making both sides of this argument serves as an illustration of why the regulations are necessary – without an authoritative, evidence-based review it is not possible to know whether the law is being followed.
Those who claim that private schools are already providing quality education will point to some religious schools whose students do well as evidence that regulation is not necessary. Those who claim that regulation interferes with their religious freedom point to public schools with social and disciplinary problems to illustrate that secular education undermines moral values. These two arguments are also contradictory. Secular education cannot be both compatible and incompatible with religious education. The fact that opponents are making both sides of this argument is evidence that they are cherry-picking examples to bolster their case, rather than looking for common sense solutions to ensure children are educated.
Is there any level of oversight which would be acceptable to the private school industry? In almost every other industry that deals with children there are routine unannounced inspections. If a childcare provider were to refuse access to an inspector, to the files and paperwork, safety of the play areas, even the temperature in the refrigerator, they would face immediate daily fines and even closure. Early childcare agencies must demonstrate that they have developmentally appropriate curriculum. They cannot operate otherwise. The regulations as proposed fall far short of the oversight of any other industry that serves children.
For 20 years, my wife operated a home childcare business. The early childhood curriculum she developed was subject to scrutiny, as were the immunization records and daily logs of each child’s care. Inspections were frequent and sometimes unannounced. When you are serving young children, satisfying the parents is important, but you must satisfy the State of New York first. It should be no different for institutions serving school age children.
- Evidence of absence
While it is true that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, there’s certainly enough known about lack of education in non-public schools to warrant increased supervision and accountability.
We know that private schools have obstructed investigation; the evidence is in Chancellor Carranza’s letter.
There’s also evidence that the private school community has used political power to threaten and bully public-school administrators not to investigate educational equivalency. Former East Ramapo Superintendent of Schools, Jason Friedman, was interviewed for an episode of public radio’s “This American Life”: “I think that’s what we all worked at. We tried to work out a quid pro quo situation. We could probably never ask a non-public school family to come out and vote yes on a budget. Our hope was that they wouldn’t come out, that they would stay away.”
Some non-public schools participate in the state ELA and Math tests given to third through eighth graders. Test results are available at: https://www.syracuse.com/schools/2018/10/2018_ela_math_test_scores_compare_private_schools_in_new_york.html
Enrollment data for non-public schools is available from the NYSED web site: http://www.p12.nysed.gov/irs/statistics/nonpublic/home.html
Registration status of non-public schools is available at: http://www.p12.nysed.gov/irs/schoolDirectory/
Non-public high schools that are registered with NYSED are authorized to issue valid New York State high school diplomas. Students at these schools take the same Regents examinations as students in public school, demonstrating proficiency and graduation rates at levels similar to public schools.
99% of students in New York’s Catholic schools in grades 9-12 and 88% of students in independent schools in grades 9-12 are in programs that are registered. Those that aren’t are in schools that serve special needs children.
However, only 46% of the 35,982 students in Jewish schools in grades 9-12 in New York State are in programs registered with NYSED. Almost 20,000 students are enrolled in high schools that cannot issue state recognized diplomas; the graduation rate for these schools is essentially zero.
In Rockland County there are over 1,800 students enrolled in the eighth grade in ultra-Orthodox Jewish non-public schools. Of these, only 387 took the state math tests and only 134 took the ELA. For comparison, in Catholic schools, of 130 students, 85 took the math and 86 took the ELA tests.
In Brooklyn, Congregation Machne Chaim Inc operates a school in which 0% of 73 students are proficient on the grade 3 Math test, 0% of 64 students are proficient at the grade 4 ELA test, 0% of 62 students are proficient at the grade 4 Math test, 0% of 61 students are proficient at the grade 5 Math test, etc. Extreme results such as these are not uncommon in ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools.
Poverty rates all over the world are highly correlated to education level; it is widely accepted that low levels of education are a main causative factor of poverty in communities everywhere. Communities in New York with the highest rate of unregulated private schools are also the communities with the highest rates of poverty.
The YAFFED Report:
This report is available at: https://www.yaffed.org/report
It documents in detail, using public data and expert witnesses, that education is not being provided in many non-public schools, and that the impact of this failure to educate is so large that is affecting statistics for entire boroughs in the city of New York. This report should be read in its entirety by anyone who is charged with decision-making regarding non-public education.
As a resident of Rockland County, and in my professional experience serving the public in Rockland County, I have interacted with many people who have been educated in non-public schools. My experience reflects the statistical evidence. While many people appear to have gotten excellent or adequate education, some – especially those who have apparently been to Hasidic boys yeshivas – appear to lack basic skills such as comprehending written material and understanding scientific and medical information. This lack of basic science information impacts their ability to understand the importance of vaccination for children, for example. It leaves them vulnerable to those who traffic in conspiracy theories.
My experience has also been that the ultra-Orthodox families I interact with are caring and loving and want their children to be happy and healthy. There is a lot of diversity within the Orthodox community, and in America we cherish that diversity. There will always be students with diverse capabilities and interests. They are served by institutions with diverse philosophies and programs. However, if these institutions do not satisfy the obligation to provide a substantially equivalent education, then the children’s civil rights are being violated. It is the State of New York which is the ultimate guarantor of those rights. Failure to put adequate regulatory mechanisms in place is a failure of NYSED to follow state law and the NY State Constitution.
In her New York Times best-selling book, “Bottle of Lies – The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom” Katherine Eban says “a (regulatory) system built on wishful thinking and infrequent scrutiny” is doomed to failure. In my opinion, failure to regulate the education system is even more serious than failure to regulate generic drugs.
Without education, we have no hope to address any of the other problems society faces. Thomas Jefferson said “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects to what never was and never will be.”
The New York State Education Department has the legal obligation and authority to ensure that every child receives the education they are constitutionally entitled to. It has been long settled law that those not enrolled in non-public school must receive an education that is at least substantially equivalent to those in public school, however in recent years, due to lack of vigilance, a substantial number of children have not been receiving this legally mandated equivalent education.
Opponents of providing education to every child (it’s hard to believe that we even have to use this phrase in the 21st century), are using every means at their disposal (they call it a war) to prevent NYSED from fulfilling its obligations. Despite attempts to include them in the process, address their needs, and be sensitive to the variety of ways in which an equivalent education can be delivered, the opposition is adamant.
Evidence that this is harming children is substantial. Evidence that it is affecting the economy and the health and safety of all residents of New York State is substantial. Evidence that the problem is growing is substantial. Evidence that existing or proposed guidelines and regulations are adequate to deal with this problem is much less substantial.
If anything, the proposed regulations need to be strengthened. There needs to be frequent and unannounced inspections. There needs to be a major emphasis on staff development. The private education industry cannot be allowed to regulate itself any more than the pharmaceutical industry should. We cannot rely on wishful thinking and infrequent scrutiny.
I implore the New York State Education Department to enact regulations which fulfill their obligations as described by the Abidjan Principals, and especially Overarching Principle 7: “States must put in place adequate mechanisms to ensure they are accountable for their obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to education, including their obligations in the context of the involvement of private actors in education.”