New York public officials faced questions on Sunday about their lack of oversight of private Hasidic Jewish schools after The New York Times revealed that the schools collect large sums of government money but deny many students a basic education.
One official, Brad Lander, the New York City comptroller, pointed to a state education board decision that is expected this week as a potential key moment for officials who have for years failed to intervene in the schools, known as yeshivas. Mr. Lander noted that the state Board of Regents was scheduled to vote on new rules for holding private schools to minimum academic standards.
“The government has an oversight responsibility to ensure those public dollars are spent as intended, but in recent years both the city and state have failed to hold yeshivas to appropriate educational standards,” said Mr. Lander, whose office serves as the city’s fiscal watchdog. “Newly proposed state regulations will help clarify the city’s oversight responsibilities.”
Under the proposed regulations, which are expected to be approved by the state board on Tuesday, the Hasidic schools could face the loss of public funding if they are found to be failing to provide children with a basic nonreligious education.
The state board action comes at a potential inflection point for the Hasidic yeshivas, with critics of the schools demanding that secular studies in the schools be bolstered and supporters flooding state offices with hundreds of thousands of letters imploring officials to keep out. The Times investigation on Sunday showed that Hasidic boys’ schools, in particular, are systemically denying some 50,000 children a decent education, an apparent violation of state law.
A Timeline of New York’s Oversight of Hasidic Schools
New York City’s education department said in 2015 it would investigate complaints about the quality of secular education in schools in the Hasidic Jewish community. State law requires all private schools to provide an education comparable to what is in public schools. Seven years later, the government has not taken any corrective action in the Hasidic schools.
Though the schools generally offer only rudimentary English and math and little, if any, science or social studies, they have received more than $1 billion in public funding over the past four years alone. Some use corporal punishment to keep children in line during long days of religious study, The Times found.
Responding to those findings last week, Mayor Eric Adams said through a spokesman that City Hall has restarted a long-delayed investigation into the quality of education at the schools. Launched by Mr. Adams’s predecessor, Bill de Blasio, in 2015, that inquiry appeared to stall some four years later after the city said in an interim report that only two of 28 yeshivas it had inspected were providing an adequate education. Following that pronouncement, the review was shelved during the pandemic.
Nearly three years have passed with little discernible action by the city, but Maxwell Young, a spokesman for the mayor, said last week that the city investigation was “in its final stages, and will be comprehensive and thorough.”
He said city officials would visit yeshivas as part of the investigation.
“At the conclusion of an investigation, we report the findings to the state, which is the regulatory authority in almost all cases,” Mr. Young said, adding that he could not share details about an ongoing investigation. Mr. Young also said that the mayor believes “corporal punishment is never permissible, in any circumstances.”
Asked about the Times findings last week, a spokeswoman for Gov. Kathy Hochul noted that the governor does not control the Board of Regents.
“Governor Hochul delivered a record level of school funding in her first budget to invest in students, teachers, and educational institutions across the state,” said the spokeswoman, Hazel Crampton-Hays. “While the governor does not have authority over the state education department nor this regulatory process, she is committed to ensuring every student receives a world-class education.”
After the Times report was published, hundreds of current and former members of the Hasidic community took to online message boards and social media platforms to share their own stories about the shortcomings of the Hasidic schools, with many saying they found the article true to their experience. Others in the community decried it as inaccurate and cited what they described as its potential to stoke antisemitic attacks against the Hasidim.
Even before the article appeared, Hasidic leaders rallied to defend their approach to education. Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, a Hasidic community leader and state lawmaker from Borough Park, Brooklyn, wrote an opinion article in The New York Sun sharing a summary of The Times’s findings and denouncing the reporting. The Sun, which is owned by Dovid Efune, an Orthodox Jewish man who has said he received no formal secular education after turning 11, also wrote an editorial, as did Hamodia, a Jewish newspaper.
All the pieces referenced a detailed summary that The Times had sent to the schools a week and a half before publication to solicit their final comments.
“The summary makes clear that the forthcoming article in the Times will defame an entire community based on sometimes anonymous critics, cherry-picked data, and outright lies,” wrote Mr. Eichenstein, who led a Times reporter on a tour of a Hasidic school earlier this year. He added that the schools teach reading, writing and arithmetic and also instill moral values.
Several other news organizations covered the furor, and Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, wrote a Twitter post about it, defending the schools.
Although Tuesday’s Board of Regents vote could mark the first time in decades that state officials have taken action to make it easier to crack down on yeshivas and other private schools, the proposed rules have been significantly watered down since the state education department began working on them four years ago. The state has not outlined clear consequences for schools that do not comply with requirements for providing basic instruction in English, math, science and civics, and the rules do not set a minimum amount of time that a school must dedicate to nonreligious instruction.
The rules would apply to all nonpublic schools, but they would perhaps have the greatest effect on the yeshivas. Many of the schools offer just 90 minutes of reading and math a day, only four days a week, the Times investigation found.