More than 50,000 4-year-olds headed off to the city’s expanded free preschool program last week. But for Jewish preschools, the new program has only benefitted those at the ends of the religious spectrum, leaving schools in the middle shut out.
“What we hear from the schools is that it’s a very tempting and attractive [public funding] package, and there’s a lot of disappointment that the structure is as rigid as it is,” said David Tanenbaum, education affairs associate for Agudath, Israel who advocated on behalf of charedi yeshivas during the pre-K expansion.
“A lot of schools feel that they can’t take advantage of the opportunity, and they would like to,” he added.
Of the approximately 2,000 publically funded preschool spots that went to Jewish institutions, more than 90 percent went to schools at either the charedi or secular end of the spectrum. While the city could not provide a list of participating Jewish preschools, of the 87 Jewish programs listed on the Department of Education’s website, all but a handful are of the Bais Yaakov/Talmud Torah variety, serving primarily charedi children, or on the JCC/YMHA/Temple side serving primarily secular and non-Jewish students.
“The major issue right now is the hours,” said Jeff Leb, who represented day schools for the Orthodox Union during talks with the de Blasio administration. “A lot of schools that we deal with chose not to join the UPK [universal pre-K] program because they weren’t really sure of the religious and the cultural ambiguities, and a lot of them determined that the timing — the 6-hour-and-20 minute school day”— simply wouldn’t work for them.“
Leb pointed out that because Jewish schools close early on Friday, the extra time is added to the rest of the week, resulting in 7 hours of secular programming Monday through Thursday — too much for a 4-year-old with religious instruction on top.
Non-public preschools accepted in the city’s universal pre-K program receive public funding of approximately $4,000 for each half-day spot and $9,000 for each full-day spot, tuition relief the schools pass on to parents. In the past, religious schools have generally participated by offering the city’s 2.5-hour half-day slots and providing religious education during the remaining hours of the day.
But the crux of the de Blasio administration’s vision is 6 hours and 20 minutes of secular education each day, which doesn’t leave enough time for religious instruction, schools say. And the result is a conflict between pedagogical ideals of an administration hoping to transform a city though early education for all, and schools dedicated to providing both secular and religious education to the next generation of observant Jews.
Over the past months, Jewish schools have been pushing the city to drop the minimum for full-day pre-K at 5 hours, following the state minimum. But Deputy Mayor Richard Buery told The Jewish Week that after studying successful pre-K programs across the country, the administration has determined that 5 hours is simply not enough.
“There’s not going to be a change from that basic principal [of 6 hours and 20 minutes] because we think that in order to achieve the extraordinary and transformative educational outcomes that we know pre-kindergarten can provide, you really do need that full day program as defined by 6 hours and 20 minutes,” he said.
To be sure, the city still offers half-day spots, and most Jewish schools that had half-day UPK spots last year were able to offer them again this year. But for new schools wanting to join the program, half-day spots were hard to get.
According to a city spokesman, of the 2,000 UPK spots allocated to Jewish schools this year, 1,300 were full-day while just 700 were half-day seats.
School representatives say that despite the rigidity on the 6-hour-and-20-minute day, the de Blasio administration has worked hard to include Jewish schools in the program. “The de Blasio administration has done a really stupendous job in reaching out to include the nonpublic school community,” said Leb.
They have met repeatedly with Jewish leaders and given religious schools as much leeway as the law allows to incorporate Jewish culture — but not religion — into the UPK school day; they have advised schools, for example, that they can teach about Noah’s Ark or celebrate Purim, as long as the instruction is from a cultural perspective, or teach classes in Yiddish, as long as some lessons are taught in English.
Schools on the secular side say they’re able to abide by these guidelines. And the charedi schools? Because schools are allowed to give preference to students already at the school, students filling the UPK spots are all charedi. Although representatives of the schools have said on the record that they will genuinely try to follow the DOE guidelines, a source with knowledge of UPK programming at religious schools, says it’s more likely to be a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. (None of the some dozen charedi schools contacted by The Jewish Week would comment for the story.)
“They’re not going to be able to adhere to the regulations of UPK if they’re actually doing lunchtime [as part of full-day UPK]; it’s not possible,” the source said of religious schools. Rather, he said, most of the schools have the philosophy that they’ll participate in the program as long as possible, and if they get kicked out, nothing will be lost.
“The chasidic organizations are going to be playing fast and loose on this,” he said. “The DOE isn’t going to go crazy on enforcing this.”
Nor would they be able to even if they tried. “They have a tremendous learning curve. They don’t have any staff who speak Yiddish,” he said.
That said, only a fraction of the city’s charedi schools are participating in the program. None of the Satmar schools in Williamsburg are, for example, because of the 6-hour-and-20-minute mandate. For them and the rest of the dozens of observant schools, the pre-K expansion has resulted in frustration, along with hope that next year, more half-day slots will be offered.
“This is a tremendous opportunity if you can do it,” said Martin Schloss, director of government relations at the Jewish Education Project and chair of the New York State Education Commissioner’s Advisory Council on nonpublic schools. “But we have an obligation to provide religious education — it is the expectation of parents who send their children there.”
But for all the disappointment, representatives of Jewish organizations say they’re hopeful that next year more half-day slots will be offered, or that the city will bring the full-day minimum down to 5 hours. And while Buery said the administration is committed to having primarily full-day spots, he said that it is planning to re-evaulate the program throughout the year. For the majority of the city’s Jewish schools, they’ll have their fingers crossed.
“Seven hours in secular programming without any sort of religious programming is not OK for Jewish day schools to have,” said Leb. “We’re not asking for time out of the UPK day to teach religious studies. We’re just asking that it just adheres to the state regulations, which are 5 hours a day and not 6 hours and 20 minutes a day. That’s all we’re asking for.”