Together the two of us have 70 years of experience in Jewish education. Yet nothing could have prepared us for what the New York State Education Department did last month. On Nov. 20, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia issued guidance empowering local school boards to evaluate private schools and to vote on our right to continue educating our students.
The state government now requires private schools to offer a specific set of classes more comprehensive than what students in public schools must learn. Our schools must offer 11 courses to students in grades 5 through 8, for a total of seven hours of daily instruction. Public schools have less than six hours a day of prescribed instruction. Private-school teachers will also be required to submit to evaluation by school districts.
At a press conference announcing the new guidelines, a reporter asked Ms. Elia what would happen if a yeshiva didn’t alter its Jewish-studies emphasis to conform to her mandate. She responded that parents “would be notified they need to transfer students” in as little as six weeks. And if they didn’t? “They’d be considered truant, and that’s another whole process that gets triggered.”
Government may have an interest in ensuring that every child receives a sound basic education, but it has no right to commandeer our schools’ curricula. Parents who want to send their children to a school offering a course list devised by the state enroll their children in the local public school. But parents who choose religious education want their children to have a specific moral, ethical and religious framework for life. Parents who choose a yeshiva want their children’s education to emphasize Jewish texts, history and culture.
The new guidance should offend people of all faiths, and others are speaking out. The New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents recently told Ms. Elia that they reject the guidance and are “directing all diocesan Catholic schools not to participate in any review carried out by local public school officials.” We expect others will join them.
While these new guidelines affect all religious schools, we know they were directed at the yeshiva system in particular. In recent years, a small number of vocal critics have complained that a handful of yeshivas emphasize Jewish studies at the expense of secular studies. They ignore the parental and religious rights of those who choose yeshiva education, are naive about the pitfalls of putting state bureaucrats in charge of religious schools, and appear more interested in undermining parental control of yeshivas than in enhancing their secular studies.
There are more than 440 yeshivas in New York state, educating 165,000 students. There will always be schools that need to improve and students who can be better served. But underperforming schools are the outliers, and they don’t define the yeshiva system. Imagine if the state launched a broadside against the New York City public-school system because many of its students are failing.
The new curriculum demands so much time that it crowds out Torah study, our sacred mission. We also are troubled by guidelines that focus entirely on inputs. The lesson plan is all that matters to the state. Yet experience has taught us that what truly matters is what kind of adults our students become. Despite the uncertainty created by this “guidance,” we are sure that yeshivas across New York won’t allow the state to alter their emphasis on the Torah.
In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Oregon couldn’t force all students to attend public schools. It offered this stinging rebuke: “A child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” Ms. Elia and her colleagues would do well to absorb that message so that we can fulfill our “high duty,” our life’s work, of providing a well-rounded Jewish education.
Messrs. Brudny and Reisman are rabbis and deans of Brooklyn yeshivas, Mir and Torah Vodaas.