Richard Altabe, principal of Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, described the revised...

Richard Altabe, principal of Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, described the revised regulations as "more reasonable" than those originally proposed by the state. Credit: Hans Pennink

Private schools, including Jewish yeshivas, may have to demonstrate they meet state academic requirements in multiple ways, such as attaining recognition from accrediting agencies, under revised regulations proposed by state education officials.

The proposed regulations, reviewed virtually Monday during a meeting of the state Board of Regents, are intended to settle a dispute that arose two years ago over New York State's authority to require nonpublic schools to provide instruction "substantially equivalent" to that found in public education. The requirement is embedded in an 1895 compulsory education law that originally was aimed at Catholic schools.

More recently, many Orthodox Jewish educators have protested that the state was overstepping constitutional boundaries by trying to spell out the sort of lessons their yeshivas can provide. While much of the movement originated in Brooklyn and Rockland County, some school leaders in the Nassau-Suffolk region also registered opposition.

Richard Altabe, principal of Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, described the revised regulations as "more reasonable" than those originally proposed by the state. But in a phone interview, Altabe said he and colleagues still objected to state intervention in matters touching on religious instruction.

"There's still, on some levels, interference with parents' rights on what they want for their children," the principal said. He added that the new plan gave schools no opportunity to demonstrate the value of religious education, even though there was ample evidence that studying Talmudic law helped develop critical thinking.

Hebrew Academy, which enrolls 1,700 students in five schools in Woodmere and Hewlett Bay Park, would presumably meet the state's requirements already, because it is accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, based in Philadelphia. The association certifies the academic standing of about 1,800 public and private schools in five states and the District of Columbia.

Altabe said, nonetheless, that his objections are based on principle.

In 2020, the education department attempted to define what was meant by "equivalent" instruction, after some yeshiva alumni filed formal complaints regarding the lessons they had received. Specifically, the former students said lessons revolved around Judaic studies taught mostly in Yiddish, without enough secular instruction to prepare them for life in modern society. Complaints involved a relatively small share of the more than 400 yeshivas estimated to be operating statewide.

In response, state education officials initially drafted regulations detailing the "units," or yearlong courses of secular studies, that would be mandated at various grade levels for nonpublic schools. The proposal drew thousands of critical letters and emails, and was quickly shelved.

The revised plan reviewed Monday offers multiple options for private schools to use in demonstrating "equivalence." Schools, for example, could obtain recognition from Middle States or other accrediting agencies. As an alternative, schools could administer state-sponsored tests to measure students' proficiency in English, math and other secular subjects.

In outlining the plan, Jim Baldwin, the state's senior deputy commissioner for education policy, said the state's approach would emphasize "that parents have a constitutional right to send their children to religious and other nonpublic schools, and that we must respect the world views of those schools even when it is different than ours."

James Cultrara, executive secretary of the New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents, said he and his colleagues, who had objected to the state's original approach, were "very encouraged" by the latest plan.

"We're confident that Catholic schools throughout Long Island and New York, through their long history of academic success, will look favorably on this proposal," Cultrara said.

State education officials plan to post the draft regulations and accept public comments until May 30. Final regulations, if not substantially changed, could come before the Regents in the fall.

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