It’s silly season on the mayoral campaign trail as candidates contort to convert voting blocs to their cause. But the mayor’s duty to assure quality education for all New Yorkers is too serious for this capricious campaign foolery.’

Jeanmarie Evelly

Andrew Yang recently claimed that a month of Bible-as-literature coursework convinced him of the worth of full-time religious instruction without the benefit of English, social studies, science, and math classes. Not to be outdone in pandering for the ultra-Orthodox Jewish vote, Eric Adams staged a visit to a yeshiva, exiting to equate Talmudic study to a broad curriculum of “culturally sensitive education” in public schools.

It’s silly season on the mayoral campaign trail as candidates contort to convert voting blocs to their cause. But the mayor’s duty to assure quality education for all New Yorkers is too serious for this capricious campaign foolery. State law, millions of dollars of city money, and the lives of thousands of children require that the issue gets full airing before the clown show overwhelms the facts.

For over a century all New York schools, public and private, have been required to provide “substantially equivalent” secular instruction. This makes sense for essential societal functions through an informed electorate, knowledgeable jurors, and other responsible civic participation. It’s also crucial for private activities like a vibrant economy and individual self-determination. All kids have to attend school or obtain home instruction to accomplish this task, be taught standard subjects while teachers and parents are given wide leeway in determining the manner of teaching and emphasis of course content. Religious instruction can and often is provided but substantially equivalent education in core subjects, subjects Yang’s statement casually dismisses, is a must.

Compliance with the law is mandatory but, according to the New York City Department of Education’s own long-delayed and superficial investigation, only two of 28 ultra-Orthodox yeshivas studied met the minimal state standard. The others still have avoided accountability, in some cases devoting their entire curriculum to religious studies, a far cry from public schools’ varied instructional menu that Adams ludicrously claims is similar. 

Why have these legal violations continued? Because, according to the New York City Department of Investigation, de Blasio engaged in “political horse-trading” to appease the powerful ultra-Orthodox voting bloc. 

But this story of official delay and craven political deal-making does not end at City Hall. In Albany, dilatory tactics by the unaccountable New York State Board of Regents have left enforcement procedures in limbo for three years since legislative mischief in 2018 tilted the law toward yeshiva interests. This amendment required a regulatory response by the Regents which has bottled up the reform while yeshiva students’ education has remained fundamentally deficient.

Action is needed. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who controls Regents appointments, must release the members to do their duty, to approve proposed rules newly empowering city officials to conduct regular school inspections to assure substantial equivalence. As with restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and other privately-run facilities subject to government regulation, these comprehensive inspections should be unannounced to assure their integrity. Mayoral candidates need to stop the side show and step into the center ring, pledging to meet their legal and moral obligation to uphold the law. The same is true for City Council candidates since the city budget is rife with handouts for non-complying yeshivas, providing undeserved political pork for a favored constituency.

When the smoke clears from this confusing election cycle where ranked choice voting and the pandemic already distract from a predicted low-vote primary likely to determine our next mayor, the winner will need to govern. Campaign antics by the current front-runners and their competition will need to give way to the sober burdens of office. Yang, Adams, and others now contorting their message for electoral expediency may find the transition awkward and painful as they break promises they cannot keep and are forced to abandon fair-weather allies who disregard the law the mayor is pledged to enforce. Better to be honest now, on the high road of educational quality for all New Yorkers.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center.