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State takes step back from tightening rules on private schools, to seek compromise

Richard Altabe, a principal at the 1,700-student Hebrew

Richard Altabe, a principal at the 1,700-student Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, said his school opposes a state regulations draft that spells out secular instruction be required of private institutions. Credit: Hans Pennink

ALBANY — State school authorities backed away Monday from a proposed tightening of regulations for private schools, saying they were inundated with more than 140,000 letters and emails mostly critical of the plan.

Instead, state officials said they would meet anew with private school leaders and others in search of a compromise solution to complaints from alumni of some Orthodox yeshivas that they received scant secular instruction.

“That is more than I’ve ever seen in my 13 years with the state Education Department — far more,” said Shannon Tahoe, the agency’s interim commissioner, referring to critical mail.

In recent months, the controversy over private school regulation, once limited to New York City and Rockland County, has spread to Long Island and other regions. Networks of Catholic schools and independent academies have joined with Orthodox schools in denouncing what they describe as state overreach.

Some private school representatives who heard  Tahoe's remarks said they hoped a reasonable settlement could be reached. The commissioner spoke at Monday’s monthly meeting of the state’s Board of Regents.

One of those representatives, Richard Altabe, a principal at the 1,700-student Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, said his school opposes a state regulations draft spelling out that secular instruction be required of private institutions, even though his academy already offers a full set of college-level Advanced Placement courses.

“Obviously, I’m representing a school that exceeds the academic standards of most public schools in New York,” Altabe said. “But this is about preserving the independence of private and parochial schools.”

State records show that 44,757 students in the Nassau-Suffolk region attended nonpublic schools during the 2018-19 academic year. Most such schools were Catholic; 38 were Jewish.

The latest flap over private school regulation erupted in 2015, when former students at dozens of Orthodox schools in New York City filed a formal complaint. The alumni charged that their yeshivas were not providing adequate secular instruction, especially in English.

One protest leader, Naftuli Moster, who grew up in Brooklyn and attended a religious school, has described private high schools in Hasidic Jewish communities that focused entirely on Judaic studies. Instructors in such schools spoke mostly Yiddish, and provided no secular coursework, Moster said.

Moster, who also attended Monday’s meeting, later criticized the state for the delay in dealing with what he characterized as an obvious educational problem. He noted that New York City’s public school system recently checked 28 private yeshivas, finding all but two failed to provide a fully adequate secular education.

“Every day we delay enforcement is another day children aren’t receiving the skills promised to them and their families,” Moster said.

Defenders of Orthodox education respond that there are more than 400 yeshivas in New York State, all run independently, and that it would be unfair to characterize all such schools in identical terms. Defenders acknowledge that such schools focus on studies of Jewish religious texts, but add that secular courses also are included, at least in the elementary and middle grades.

An Orthodox group, Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, or PEARLS, headquartered in Brooklyn, describes a yeshiva education as “a rigorous one that requires discipline inside and outside the classroom, the same kind of discipline and willpower needed to succeed in professional life.”

Moster and others pressing for more secular education in Orthodox schools point to New York State’s compulsory education law. One provision of that law, adopted in 1895, requires that instruction in nonpublic schools be “at least substantially equivalent to the instruction given to minors of like age and attainments at the public schools of the city or district where the minor resides.”

That “substantially equivalent” clause, when first approved, was meant to deal with a dispute between Protestants and Catholics over instruction in parochial schools.

Now, 125 years later, the state Education Department has tried to deal with a fresh dispute by defining what is meant by “equivalent” education.

To do this, the department drafted regulations — now apparently discarded — detailing the “units” or yearlong courses of secular studies mandated at various grade levels. Private high schools, like public ones, would be required to provide four units of English and social studies, three units of mathematics and science, two units of physical education and one unit in the arts. 

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