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NY updates guidance for instruction at state's nonpublic schools 

Public school officials are required under state law to review the instruction at nonpublic schools, making sure their programs are comparable to those in public schools, according to the state Education Department.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, middle, said her

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, middle, said her department over the last two years consulted with public, religious and independent school communities to update its guidance for nonpublic schools. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The state Education Department this week released updated guidance ensuring nonpublic schools offer their students instruction that is substantially equivalent to their public school counterparts.

The guidance impacts the roughly 1,865 religious and independent schools across the state — including 132 schools in Nassau County and 71 schools in Suffolk County, according to state data provided by Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

Local public school officials are required under state law to review the instruction at nonpublic schools, such as parochial schools and yeshivas, making sure their programs are “comparable in content and educational experience” to those received by students in public schools, according to the department.

“Our guidance recognizes that parents have a right to choose a nonpublic school for their child,” state Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a news release Tuesday. “We want to ensure that all students receive the education they are entitled to under state Education Law no matter which school they attend.”

Elia, in a conference call with reporters, noted that equivalent “does not mean equal or identical to.” Nonpublic schools do not have to require the same curriculum or assessments, nor do they have to use the same teaching methods as their public school counterparts, she said.

The department over the last two years consulted with public, religious and independent school communities to update its guidance, and created tool kits available online, she said.

The reviews of a small subset of nonpublic schools, mostly yeshivas, also would be subject to approval from the state education commissioner, according to an amendment to education law passed in April by the State Legislature. Elia would do so after the initial review conducted by local school officials.

The amendment came as instruction at a number of yeshivas is being investigated by New York City.

High schools registered with the state Board of Regents are not subject to the review because they already have undergone a review process, Elia said. 

The department, starting in December, will host training on the new guidelines, and once it is completed, the public school officials will conduct their reviews, which must be finished by Dec. 15, 2021, according to the state. The schools should be revisited on a five-year cycle.

Nonpublic schools that do not appear to be offering “substantially equivalent” instruction have the opportunity to improve, according to the department. They also can use existing federal and state academic intervention services to provide professional learning opportunities for teachers, according to the department.

Schools that still fail to meet the standard would be shut down, losing funds and services, including aid for textbooks and transportation, Elia said. Parents at those schools would be notified that their students must transfer to a different school within a set timeline, and those who do not would be considered truant, she said.

When asked what the change means for local schools, Nassau BOCES Superintendent Robert Dillon said private schools in Nassau County already “overwhelmingly meet or exceed the state mandates.” 

James Cultrara, New York State Catholic Conference director for education, said Catholic-school parents can be “confident in the academic rigor and the good work the Catholic schools are doing for their children."

While the guidance has been in place for decades, the reviews have never been strictly enforced, he said.

The conference takes issue with the fact that public school officials conduct the reviews. “The very notion that a public school board can vote on whether a private school, which is a competitor of the public school, can continue to operate defies logic," Cultrara said. 

The review process must be done in the "most objective and uniform manner," he said, a responsibility the conference believes "should be vested solely with the State Education Department from whom our charters have been granted.”

According to the department, the updated guidance and training establishes five core principles ensuring reviews are objective, mindful, sensitive, respectful and consistent, promoting collaboration between public and nonpublic schools.

“The process should be a collaborative effort that is a mutually beneficial learning process for leaders of both public and nonpublic schools resulting in appropriate educational opportunities for the children they serve,” state Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa said.

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