Secular education at a number of the city’s yeshivas is getting better, and the schools are cooperating with a city Department of Education probe. Or secular education remains as substandard as critics have long said it is. Or it’s impossible to know in some instances, since 15 of the 39 yeshivas being investigated didn’t even let DOE officials in the door.
Those are the dizzyingly contradictory opinions of the players on either side of a long-running controversy about whether charedi yeshiva students are learning enough English, math and science to prepare them for life in 2018.
In a report sent last week to the commissioner of the state’s Department of Education by Richard Carranza, New York City Schools chancellor, half of 30 schools under investigation granted access to city education officials and described new curricula and teacher training efforts, while the other half did not provide ready access to school buildings.
The DOE’s investigation was conducted in response to a 2015 letter signed by 52 “parents of current students, former students and former teachers,” which complained that the secular education offered at the representative sample of 39 named yeshivot did not provide “an education that meets the requirements of substantial equivalence” to that offered at public schools.
The investigation focused on 30 of the 39 schools; the other nine were described as “outside the scope” of the investigation or no longer operating.
“Our original complaint is 100 percent confirmed” by the letter, said Naftuli Moster, who grew up in Borough Park’s Belzer chasidic community, and six years ago founded Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), which lobbies for charedi schools to offer a secular education that meets DOE standards.
In his 14-page report, Carranza stated that “The simple fact is that DOE has not been provided access” to nine elementary schools and six high schools. “The long delay in scheduling visits to this group of 15 schools is a serious concern.” He added that representatives of eight of those schools “notified us that they were willing to schedule visits.”
Carranza wrote that in meetings with DOE representatives, officials from several yeshivot outlined “new secular curricula” being created for elementary schools, and gave “a verbal commitment that the curricula would be adopted by most or all of the yeshivos.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Moster called the improvements described by representatives of the visited schools “exaggerated — part cosmetic, part real.”
He pointed out that none of the school officials — all at the elementary school level — indicated that they plan to increase the number of secular subjects offered at their institutions, or to increase the 90 minutes a day of secular studies that Moster said is the norm.
The city officials, according to the DOE letter, did not gain access to any charedi high schools, which Moster called “the worst offenders.”
“In the broader context of insisting that yeshivas currently provide a robust secular education fully compliant with relevant rules and regulations, I am sure there will be some modifications to curriculum moving forward,” said Michael Tobman, a spokesman for the Alliance for Yeshiva Education, a coalition of area charedi schools that was formed in response to YAFFED’s advocacy activities. “What that looks like, how it’s evaluated and by whom, are points of ongoing discussion.”
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Attorney Avi Schick, an adviser for the PEARLS (Parents for Education and Religious Liberty in Schools) pro-yeshiva advocacy organization, wrote in an op-ed essay for the New York Daily News last week that the city investigation “confirms that the [YAFFED] allegations are false, and that yeshiva students receive an enriching education in a quality learning environment,”
The DOE, while declining to provide a spokesman to answer questions on this topic from The Jewish Week, sent a statement in the name of Carranza that said, “We deeply believe that all students — regardless of where they attend school — deserve a high-quality education. We will ensure appropriate follow up action is taken based on guidance provided by SED [State Education Department].”