Time To Revise New York Law on Compulsory Education

Why is it the failing public schools to which religious schools need to be substantially equivalent?

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

Earlier this month, we had the pleasure of sitting in on the oral arguments in the debate over the state’s authority to regulate what happens in the four walls of New York’s yeshivas. The case currently sits at Albany with Judge Christina Ryba of the Supreme Court, a trial bench. She will issue an opinion imminently. As longtime defenders of the yeshivas, we were surprised to find ourselves agreeing with the state regulators quite a bit. 

That’s not to say that we believe the educational offerings of the yeshivas should change. To our mind, they’re protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise to deny even an iota of secular instruction to their students if they believe it to be prohibited by their religion. An assistant attorney general arguing on behalf of the state, William Scott, however, put forward a compelling line of argument in respect of the regulations. 

“The various issues that they raised in this case are not issues with the challenge regulation,” Mr. Scott said of the plaintiffs. “They’re issues with the compulsory education law. Standards related to the language of instruction, courses that have to be taught, the competency of teachers — that all comes from the education law, not from these regulations.” Mr. Scott’s read of the compulsory education law appears to be correct.

The state compulsory education law requires that students receive instruction that is “at least substantially equivalent” to that of a public school taught by a “competent teacher” in the following subject areas: arithmetic, reading, writing, English language, geography, American history, civics, hygiene, physical education, New York state’s history, and science. It’s a hefty laundry list that is currently not being enforced.

Enter the latest round of state regulations meant to ensure that these subjects are being taught in the prescribed manner, autumn through spring in New York’s more than 1,500 independent schools. Never mind that yeshivas were supposed to be exempt from the instruction requirements based on the Felder Amendment, which said that the imparting of substantially equivalent critical thinking skills should be weighed.

The regulations give schools a number of options to prove that they are meeting substantial equivalence: accreditation, Regents administration, and IB programs — or else have your programs evaluated by public school authorities. Yeshivas, which are largely unaccredited, are the only group of New York schools that don’t fall neatly into one of these pathways and would therefore be the only ones subject to oversight by local public school administrators.

On their face, all these regulations do is enforce the compulsory education law — which is why we suggest that New York replace the ordinance with one not hostile to the hundreds of thousands of fervently religious Jews who make their home in the Empire State. Overturning the regulations is a band-aid solution. Regulations to enforce the law will continue to spring up until the compulsory education law is revised.

In a state as diverse as ours, it makes little sense to compel schools to educate every child the same way. Even that famous advocate of public education, Thomas Jefferson, thought better of compulsory schooling, contending “it is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings & ideas by the forcible asportation & education of the infant against the will of the father.”

Reforming the compulsory education law is beyond the scope of Judge Ryba’s mandate in this suit. It’s a task that sits with our legislature, which is hardly champing at the bit to pass liberty-minded legislation. We hear whispers that the yeshivas of New York may find themselves in a federal suit in the near future, and we advise the attorneys for the plaintiffs in that case not merely to focus on the regulations but to push back against the unjust law.

The New York Sun

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