New York should be proud of its diverse educational landscape. People can send their children to the local public school or educate them in an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva, a Catholic school, a Waldorf school, or even at home. Families feel better about education when they have a say in the experience. Nobody likes to be bossed around. However, with the passage of the final Essential Equivalence Rules, New York’s Board of Regents has eliminated many educational options in the state. If you want your kids to go to a school other than the local public schools, you’re out of luck. The new rules reinforce the Compulsory Education Act, which requires all non-public schools to be essentially equivalent to local public schools.
Recently, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul urged Republican politicians to leave the state and go to Florida: “Get out of town. Because you do not represent our values.” Similarly, the Regents say to anyone unhappy with local public schools: Don’t like this type of training? Then leave the state.
The compulsory education law has been on the books since 1895, but it reflects an era when white Protestant Americans expected immigrants to assimilate quickly. I wish my grandparents had taught my father Italian, but like many immigrants at the time, they wanted their children to speak English like everyone else.
In hindsight, however, Americans realized that the melting pot idea harmed families, traditions, and communities, and deprived the rest of society of the contributions of other cultures. Today, more and more Americans appreciate that the country is richer when many cultures contribute to the cultural potluck.
After the Holocaust, Orthodox Jews chose to leave Europe and rebuild their communities and schools in New York. America is the land of opportunity and religious freedom, and Orthodox Jews have been part of the fabric of New York City for decades.
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Orthodox Jews do not want essentially equivalent schools
Many orthodox Jews have protested against the government’s new regulations for non-public schools. Here are excerpts from letters expressing concerns from Jewish constituencies about the new regulations:
Lawyers: “Aside from our core religious tenet as Jewish parents, to pass on Jewish learning and values to the next generation, we want our children to enjoy the rich educational experience that has been made possible for us. The proposed regulations will hinder our ability as parents to provide our children with the education we see fit.”
Software Engineers: “While the proposed regulations completely ignore the value of our Jewish studies, our clear experience is that the intense reasoning skills cultivated through these very courses are the foundation of our outstanding success as engineers.”
Mental Health Professionals: “Codes of professional ethics for psychiatrists emphasize respect for diversity and the cultural values of minorities. We urge you to do the same, while embracing the many strengths unique to yeshiva education, rather than attempting to replicate the public school experience.”
According to the state education office, it has checked over 350,000 comments on the regulations and decided that they do not regulate religious instruction.
One can only conclude that the state education ministry has not heard what the orthodox Jews are saying. Or they’ve heard and don’t care if orthodox Jews are happy or stay in the state.
Students in yeshiva start the day early and stay until dinner. Students study Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaean Hebrew, Aramaic and English and read the Torah, Talmud and commentaries on both. One scholar likens yeshiva training to “advanced liberal arts at a university.” Students cannot get this type of education and have enough time to check off all the items on the regulatory to-do list.
Yeshivas may offer some students a better type of education than public schools. However, the Regents are not interested in healthy competition between school models.
A recent article in the New York Times called yeshivas “failing private schools that were fed public funds.” The total education budget for New York City is $31 billion in fiscal year 2023, and New York Hasidic schools have received $1 billion over the past four years. A drop in the bucket. Additionally, the scandal identified in the article is that yeshiva students perform poorly on state tests when they take them.
The state can force yeshivas to offer more secular education to improve test scores, but they would destroy much of what makes them unique. The regulations will also affect any other type of education that is not currently geared towards improving test scores.
New York education policymakers could have tried to make public schools more attractive to families. Instead, they force all New York students to attend schools that are almost the same, whether the families like it or not.
Nicholas Tampio is Professor of Political Science at Fordham University.