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Op-Ed: Protecting the Religious Liberty of Yeshivas

Writing for the New York Post, Crown Heights lawyer and activist Eli Federman and Jason Bedrick of the libertarian think tank The Cato Institute make the case that the efforts of activists petitioning the government to force Orthodox-Jewish schools to teach secular subjects are misguided, against the spirit of American religious liberty, and bound to fail:

A dispute over education within the Hasidic community made headlines this month after activists demanded the government force Hasidic schools to teach secular subjects.

Now the city Department of Education is investigating these schools — called yeshivas — and even threatening to send them “lesson plans.”

But like a man who steals his neighbor’s butter knife to cut down a tree, the activists are taking the wrong approach and using the wrong instrument.

Young Advocates for Fair Education and a former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union charge that Hasidic schools are failing to provide the legally required instruction in English, math, history and science. Although well-intentioned, using government coercion to achieve their goals violates parental rights and religious liberty — and is unlikely to work anyway.

New York’s overly broad Education Law demands that private schools provide a “substantially equivalent” education to the public schools — well beyond just math and English. However, parents often choose private schools because they want an education that’s substantially different.

The activists wrongly assume that being “educated” means whatever the government says it means. But there is and always has been a legitimate diversity of views about the meaning and purpose of education, what children should learn and how best to teach them.

Yeshivas have educational priorities that differ from mainstream society, but that doesn’t mean their students are uneducated. Most people would be impressed to hear that students were studying Aristotle and Plato in their original Greek and Virgil in his original Latin.

Yeshiva students spend most of their day studying the ancient Jewish texts in their original Hebrew and Aramaic. And like studying law or philosophy, vigorous Talmud study develops highly analytical and critical thinking skills.

A truly pluralistic society must allow individuals and groups considerable freedom to decide what to teach their own children.

Although the government may impose some reasonable regulations, particularly concerning health and safety, the justice system has long recognized parents’ fundamental right to decide how to raise their children. As the US Supreme Court ruled in its landmark case Pierce v. Society of Sisters, a “child is not the mere creature of the state.”

Some states do a better job adhering to this core American principle than New York. In Florida, for example, neither the state nor local districts “have the authority to oversee or control the curriculum or academic programs of private schools.” Private schools are free to decide what to teach and how to teach it, and parents are free to choose schools that work for them.

But even if the government had a right to impose its will on private schools, there’s no reason to believe it will be effective. In fact, the city DOE has proved utterly incapable of overseeing its own failing schools.

In some city schools, not a single student passed the state’s English or math exams. Although nearly 70 percent of city students graduate high school, barely a quarter are “college- or -career-ready” by the state’s own standards. Many of the students holding these worthless diplomas can barely read.

If the state and city governments fail to provide a quality education at their own schools, why should anyone believe that they’ll be able to improve someone else’s schools?

Plus, any effort to improve secular education in the yeshivas will need the support of the Hasidic community at large. Trying to twist their collective arm is a poor strategy for winning friends and influencing people. And their arm doesn’t twist so easily.

A prominent Hasidic writer has already voiced such resistance, calling Young Advocate’s plea for the DOE’s intervention an attempt “to disrupt and destroy” yeshiva education. Notably, the writer supports improving secular education in yeshivas, objecting only to government compulsion.

Lasting change can only come from within. Fortunately, there are some signs of progress. One Hasidic school in Crown Heights, Lamplighters Yeshiva, has already made great strides in implementing a quality secular education as a part of its curriculum — without DOE threats.

Better secular education in yeshivas is a worthy goal, but using persuasion, not coercion, is the right way to get there.

Jason Bedrick is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. Eliyahu Federman writes on religion, culture and law.

11 Comments

  • 1. All we have to do wrote:

    All we have to do is to threaten to enroll our kids in public school and the massive amount of tax payer dollars it would cost would crash the whole system. We are helping the city of New York by funding our own schools. If these alumnus don’t like our system they are free to fund their own schools.

    • 2. Parent wrote:

      Don’t threaten, DO IT!!!

      Imagine what happens if tomorrow all Yeshiva parents go and register their kids in public school?

      Let’s start with Crown Heights, all the kids of OT, BR, BM, ULY, OM, etc., probably about 7-8-10,000(?) kids KA”H register in PS at once, can the city provide space and teachers for 8000 new kids?

      And what about providing teachers who speak Hebrew & Yiddish (just like they provide Spanish and Arabic)? And what about Kosher meals? Is the city able to provide all this? Legally they have to.

      The city will gladly beg you to take all these kids back to where they came from, because of all of the above reasons they are unable to accommodate us.

      Now add the costs. The city spends between $16-20,000 per kid in PS, then add the costs for special language teachers, $1-2,000 per kid? Add to that the extra costs of Kosher food, $1-2,000 per kid?

      Now multiply this by all the children from Willy, BP & Flatbush, what are we talking about another 100,000 kids K”Y?

      So now you add to the city budget another $18,000 x 110,000 kids is about $1,980,000,000 (and that’s extremely conservative), add to that about 30 new school buildings (roughly a new school for each 3000 students), how much should that cost, $10,000,000 per new building?

      So you’re hitting the city (very conservatively) with an immediate cost of over $300,000,000 to setup the buildings, additional $1,980,000,000 a year to educate, do you think the city is interested in such a new expenditure (all the numbers here are extremely conservative)?

      What will the city do? They will beg you to take the kids back at any cost.

      What should we do? Negotiate! Negotiate vouchers of no less than $10,000 per kid, that’s 50% (conservatively) of what the city will pay if we all go to PS, and will save them the expense of the buildings of $300,000,000 (very conservatively), so it’s a win-win for everybody.

      Win-win for the parents, win-win for the Yeshivas, win-win for the city.

      So how bad did we do so far?

      Very bad! Our self-appointed leaders have no guts! Worse yet, a couple of years ago some school administrators wanted to organize this mass registration, and they were shouted down by the so called “political leaders” telling us that it won’t work! And that it’s a Chilul Hashem!

      Really? Are you guys crazy? This would be the greatest Kiddush Hashem, this will show that once and for all we truly care about the Chinuch of our children and that we’re ready to do something about the dire state of Chinuch in America (ever heard of עת לעשות לה’?).

      And to the politicians I say, have you had a drop of brains or a tad of willingness to get off your fancy laurels and do something concrete, you would be able to get all the black politicians, many of whom are ministers in their own religious communities and who belong to communities which send their kids to their local private religious schools (another 100,000 in Brooklyn alone?), they would all join our/their fight for our/their schools, and you have power to make things happen.

      But all this takes leadership and organization…… Much harder than writing a comment online……

    • 3. Pedant wrote:

      That is far from the only way it can shake out and it completely overlooks to degree to which the goyim hate yidden because I can just as easily imagine a different scenario where the Federal Government, rubbing its hands together in anticipatory glee, emergency funds the entire operation.

      2 billion a year? No problem.

      Free Government education we would get, every penny of it.

      So we all back out … sorry .. eh we didn’t mean it, and within a month or two our moisdois start getting hit by Federal investigations. Revenge.

      Playing games with Feds isn’t so obviously an winning proposition.

      You don’t want to shake that cage.

    • 5. nsker wrote:

      This is a popular delusion, but I think it won’t work even if a concerted effort were possible.

      First, the cost to the city per child is inflated, the marginal cost is much less than $20,000. But even $300mln will not break this city with a $70bln budget, with more than $20bln in annual school spending. It will create some disruption for a couple of months for sure, but they will eventually be able to pull through.

      Second, you conveniently forget to subtract the government subsidies that the yeshivos currently get. Our schools are unsustainable on their own. So the immediate effect will be that most of the yeshivos will close or dismiss everyone unable to pay the full cost, which means most of us. And the public schools will not hire the melamdim who lose their jobs.

    • 6. Parent wrote:

      To nsker: I believe that what you’re saying is a popular delusion and that’s why nothing happens.

      In addition your numbers are way way off, here is what the NYC Dept. of education claims are the costs of educating a student:

      District Name: New York City Department Of Education
      Region: Mohawk Valley

      Instructional Costs per Student: $16,177, 80%
      Instructional Salaries per Student:$8,677, 43%
      Instructional Employee Benefits per Student:$4,792, 24%
      Other Instructional per Student: $2,708, 13%
      Support Services Costs per Student: $4,099, 20%

      Total Instructional & Support Costs per Student: $20,276
      – See more at: http://www.cbcny.org/sites/default/files/InstructionalAndSupportMap.html#sthash.CUR1o7Wy.dpuf

      So here go your “educated” numbers.

  • 7. 5775 wrote:

    5775 years later and we are still turning out unskilled, illiterate, government dependent boys/men that have to struggle to compete in a modern society. A shanda of epic proportions!

    • 8. Ezra wrote:

      Speak for yourself. I know plenty of children – myself and my own children included – who have gone to our mosdos chinuch and are skilled, literate, independent and are quite comfortably part of modern society. No, the “shanda” is parents like you who can’t be bothered to teach your own children a little (or enroll them in after-school English programs, if you wish, of which there are some fine ones around the neighborhood) and prefer to just blame “the system.”

  • 9. Dovid wrote:

    As a parent, it is our responsibility to make sure that our children are given the proper skills to live a productive life, and that includes how to write properly,how to read, how to spell and also arithmetic.

  • 10. Agree with Authors wrote:

    While I agree with the authors, from their article:
    ” — and is unlikely to work anyway.”
    Clearly, by using the word anyWAY and not anywayS…these authors are not from our schools and lack the poor grammar to sympathize with the cause.

  • 11. we pay taxes wrote:

    we pay taxes and we should get something for our yeshivas in return and not just lunch money

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