Ivory Tower Weighs In on Jewish Study Halls

Court filings show a battle brewing between different departments at Columbia University with regard to new regulations on New York’s yeshivas.

AP/Mark Lennihan, file
The Young Israel of Flatbush yeshiva at Brooklyn, New York, in 2018. AP/Mark Lennihan, file

At Brooklyn, Albany, and Morningside Heights, a clash is brewing between opponents of and supporters of the rights of yeshivas to educate children in accordance with what many Orthodox Jews see as the dictates of their faith.

In a lawsuit currently pending before the state supreme court, Columbia University affiliates are weighing in on the fight for New York’s yeshivas.

The education department recently announced new regulations that would subject yeshivas to review by local school districts to determine whether the Jewish schools are meeting standards of “substantial equivalence” to their public school counterparts. 

The regulations would diminish the autonomy of yeshivas, giving curricular and faculty hiring oversight to local public school authorities.

In response, the Agudath Israel of America, alongside five New York yeshivas and several other Jewish education advocacy groups, filed suit against the New York State Education Department. The suit is drawing more attention — and more amicus briefings — than a suit at the trial level ordinarily receives.

A think tank at Columbia’s Teachers College, the Center for Educational Equity, has filed an amicus brief in support of the defendants. The author of the brief,  Michael Rebell, questions whether yeshivas are preparing students to become “capable citizens” without substantial equivalence regulations.  

Mr. Rebell, the executive director of the center, was the co-counsel for the plaintiffs in a 2003 lawsuit that determined New York students have a constitutional right to a “sound basic education,” Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York. The ruling, which challenged the funding formula for New York’s public schools, set a precedent that is often cited along with the substantial equivalence law for regulating yeshivas.

According to the ruling in Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the state has an obligation to guarantee students “the opportunity for a sound basic education” that will allow them to “function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.”

Mr. Rebell argues that the state is failing to meet this obligation if it does not increase civics and secular education in Jewish schools. Citing recent New York Times articles, he says that many yeshivas “fail to provide their students with even the most basic knowledge, skills, experiences and democratic values needed for meaningful civic participation.”

Mr. Rebell admits that chasidic communities have “high voting rates” but says in a footnote that they “vote without exercising independent decision making” — often basing their votes on the advice of communal leaders.

Meanwhile, in a newly filed affidavit, a former dean of Columbia Business School is arguing in defense of the yeshivas against pro-regulation activists who purport to understand what happens within the walls of the schools.

A professor and division chairwoman at Columbia, Awi Federgruen, questions the methodology by which the New York State education department came to arrive at the new regulations.

Mr. Federgruen’s primary concern in his affidavit is a report by Young Advocates for Fair Education, which the state’s education commissioner, Betty Rosa, refers to in her affidavit as justification for the regulations. The report, Mr. Federgruen, says “suffers from several fatal methodological infirmities” and should not be relied upon. The report claims to share information about the amount of secular education in various yeshivas and satisfaction from alumni and parents at the schools.

The survey, which was distributed on social media, garnered fewer than 44 relevant responses. Mr. Federgruen contends the yeshivas in question collectively educate more than 57,000 annually — so the number is “clearly insufficient to be representatives.”

Mr. Federgruen also says the survey is “radically biased” based on its distribution strategy — which consisted of Yaffed’s network sharing the link on social media. “YAFFED oversampled those likely to agree with its worldview, and excluded the vast majority of Hasidic Yeshiva graduates and alumni,” Mr. Federgruen writes.

He also challenges Yaffed’s data on the causal relationship between poverty and poor education in chasidic communities. Relying on Census data, Mr. Federgruen argues that, per household, yeshiva graduates earn equal to or slightly above the average American household.

Mr. Federgruen finally questions whether yeshivas are a “burden on taxpayers” due to the Title I, II, and III funding they receive. Given the per-pupil cost of New York public schools, Mr. Federgruen estimates that yeshivas save New York taxpayers more than $5 billion annually.

A date for the trial has not yet been set. In 2019, a similar attempt to further regulate yeshivas was overruled at the trial level.

The New York Sun

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