‘New York State allows millions of dollars to flow into private schools without any measures to ensure students actually receive a secular education. New legislation aims to fix this issue.’

Jeanmarie Evelly

Governor Hochul’s Fiscal Year 2023 executive budget allocates a whopping $295 million for nonpublic schools. Despite this investment, New York State has very little oversight of nonpublic schools and the quality of their education. There is a common misunderstanding that all nonpublic schools offer superior education and require little supervision, but this isn’t always true.

In New York City, it is an open secret that there are ultra-Orthodox Hasidic yeshivas, specifically boys’ schools, that fail to provide students with a basic education in secular topics. Students’ days are dedicated to religious studies, with English and math crammed into 90 minutes at the end, and other subjects such as history and science wholly absent. By high school, some students don’t receive any secular education at all.

As a result, there are students who spend their whole lives in New York but are excluded from an education in English and the aforementioned subjects, impacting their ability to have an independent future. Their testimonies are heart wrenching.

New York City launched an investigation into some of these schools in 2015. In 2019, the Department of Education released a letter that announced 26 of 28 schools investigated were noncompliant, but over two years later, they claim the investigation is still ongoing. In the meantime, New York State allows millions of dollars to flow into private schools without any measures to ensure students actually receive a secular education. New legislation aims to fix this issue.

The state constitution guarantees every child in New York the right to a secular education. There is a longstanding mandate that nonpublic schools must offer an education that is “substantially equivalent” to the education public schools offer. The Right to Learn bill would require all nonpublic schools to certify that they meet substantial equivalency in order to receive state funding or reimbursements. Schools that cannot certify and prove that they meet substantial equivalency won’t receive any funding.

This legislation would make nonpublic schools accountable for educating students and allow the state to protect students from educational neglect. It would also supplement substantial equivalency regulations the New York State Education Department is currently developing. It is a common-sense way to ensure nonpublic schools fulfill their duty to educate students.

It is a travesty that this issue has been ignored and enabled for so long, and it is time for both the city and state to step up and protect the educational rights of Hasidic students. New York City must release the full findings of its yeshiva investigation without further delay, and the state legislature must expediently pass the Right to Learn bill. 

Michael Sussman is a New York-based civil rights attorney who has been practicing for 43 years. He specializes in education law.

4 thoughts on “Opinion: New York State Must Hold Nonpublic Schools Accountable on Secular Education

  1. This Opinion piece very early on shows its authors bias by only mentioning the timing of secular studies in Yeshivas and not at all mentioning the superior success rate of yeshiva students at both Regents and similar exams and later on in life at their respective chosen fields
    City Limits would do well by publishing the actual data and by actually helping to unify our divided city

    • Orthodox yeshivas are a failure if their children fail to gain entrance into Harvard or Yale. Ultra-orthodox yeshivas, from what I read and hear, are quite the opposite.

      Satmar Hasidic yeshivas, it appears, teach almost exclusively religious topics, and do so in Yiddish. The students, when they turn 18, are woefully undereducated in the subjects needed for becoming self-sufficient individuals in American society, and are not taught how to become good citizens in a participatory democracy.

      It appears that the most extreme of the ultra-religious sects (not unlike some political and ideological extremists) wish to create a “nation within a nation” in the United States. This is both un-American and, if allowed, violates the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution.

  2. As CWTDWYTK writes:
    “𝙒𝙚 𝙖𝙥𝙥𝙧𝙤𝙖𝙘𝙝𝙚𝙙 𝙨𝙚𝙫𝙚𝙧𝙖𝙡 𝙡𝙤𝙘𝙖𝙡 𝙥𝙤𝙡𝙞𝙩𝙞𝙘𝙞𝙖𝙣𝙨 𝙤𝙣 𝙗𝙚𝙝𝙖𝙡𝙛 𝙤𝙛 ‘𝙅𝙚𝙬𝙨 𝙁𝙤𝙧 𝘼 𝙎𝙚𝙘𝙪𝙡𝙖𝙧 𝙀𝙙𝙪𝙘𝙖𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣’ 𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙖𝙨𝙠𝙚𝙙 𝙛𝙤𝙧 𝙩𝙝𝙚𝙞𝙧 𝙨𝙪𝙥𝙥𝙤𝙧𝙩 𝙗𝙮 𝙘𝙤-𝙨𝙞𝙜𝙣𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙩𝙝𝙞𝙨 𝙗𝙞𝙡𝙡. 𝙊𝙣𝙡𝙮 𝘼𝙨𝙨𝙚𝙢𝙗𝙡𝙮𝙢𝙖𝙣 𝙆𝙚𝙣𝙣𝙚𝙩𝙝 𝙕𝙚𝙗𝙧𝙤𝙬𝙨𝙠𝙞 𝙖𝙜𝙧𝙚𝙚𝙙 𝙩𝙤 𝙙𝙤 𝙨𝙤!” Three cheers for Ken Zebrowski!

    And also 3 cheers for Civil Rights Attorney Michael Sussman for this excellent opinion piece (essentially re-stating what I have been saying for a few years now): “students who spend their whole lives in New York … excluded from an education … impacting their ability to have an independent future. Their testimonies are heart wrenching…”

    As I wrote last year, American democracy needs an educated electorate: https://www.serverockland.com/post/hasidic-children-do-you-know-a-goy

  3. It’s also important to note that the state Department of Education’s latest proposed rules regarding substantial equivalency place the burden on the local public school district. If the private school does not follow one of 6 prescribed paths to equivalency, it then falls to the district to determine substantial equivalency. It’s not even clear if this mandate would come with extra funding for the districts to fulfill this obligation. Public school districts have enough on their plate educating their own students. They should not be held responsible for ensuring that local private schools adequately educate their students. That responsibility should fall squarely on the state department of education.

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