Opinions & observations: Rejection of curriculum requirements undermines NYC children’s education
When I made the choice 15 years ago to opt out of New York City’s public school system and send my daughter to what most would call an “elite” private school, I knew I wasn’t part of the solution to the problem of educational inequity in our city. But I never imagined that her school, a prestigious institution in the heart of Downtown Brooklyn, would actively work to undermine the education of thousands of other children in the borough and across the city and state.
Children in many ultra-Orthodox yeshivas are graduating high school without the most basic education — unable to read and write English, do math beyond rudimentary addition and subtraction, or grasp the most basic aspects of the American political system. These schools’ leaders believe that children — especially boys — should study Torah exclusively. These children often grow up to be reliant on government assistance and tethered to their insular communities.
For decades, advocates have tried in vain to hold these yeshivas accountable, but the ultra-Orthodox community can be a powerful voting bloc — recent revelations confirm that city officials deliberately looked the other way, delaying efforts for reform and accountability.
In 2018, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) introduced new procedures to enforce the longstanding requirement that all independent schools must provide a “substantially equivalent” education to what is provided in New York public schools. After a long, fractious process, the NYSED now has very little time left to decide whether or not to adopt the proposed regulations before they expire.
The New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS), an accreditation organization made up of 200 independent schools, launched an aggressive, multi-front campaign to defeat the new procedures. In August 2019, my daughter’s school, along with many other NYC private schools, sent alarmist emails to their parent and alumni communities, imploring them to speak out against the regulations during the mandatory public comment period. Some schools vaguely argued that the new regulations would threaten their “independence” and “autonomy.” Others were bizarrely specific, falsely claiming that the new regulations would make students’ academic records public.
In reality, these regulations lay out minimal curriculum standards. For example, equivalency requires four units each of English and social studies, three units each of math and science, and one unit in the arts during grades 9 through 12. These are benchmarks that the city’s elite prep schools easily meet and exceed. Visits by the NYC Department of Education would take place once every three to five years to ensure compliance.
Last year, I spoke out within the school community to clarify the issues, give context, and advocate for the new regulations. To say I was disappointed by the reaction would be an understatement. Initially, administrators clung to falsehoods that the regulations would dictate curriculum and restrict other key aspects of the educational experience. But when I challenged that assertion, they were unable to back it up in the published regulatory language.
Some parents believed that the state had “no right” to monitor independent schools, but our government has a vested interest in ensuring that every child receives the necessary education to become a productive member of society, and the courts have long upheld this concept. Others wondered whether regulations could be drawn more narrowly, to target only the “bad actors.” But regulations, by their very nature, must apply to all like entities, and drawing distinctions based on religion would be an invitation to a successful court challenge.
I agree with those who said the school already provides an excellent educational experience — there was living proof at my dinner table every night. But in a civic society, we are all burdened by regulations that serve the public good.
When all else failed, folks pulled out the dusty old “slippery slope” argument: While these particular regulations may be innocuous, they might pave the way for more onerous, restrictive standards down the road. If anything, the current process has proven that instituting new regulations is anything but a slippery slope; it’s more like an arduous slog. Regardless, I would argue that when children are being irreparably harmed every day of the school year, a “slippery slope” just isn’t a good enough reason to maintain the status quo.
In a moment of perversely refreshing candor, one board leader said flatly that they must consider only what’s best for the school when making decisions, regardless of the impact of those decisions on the surrounding community. As someone who has spent the last 20 years as a nonprofit executive, I reject this black-and-white view of a board’s fiduciary duty. Elite private school constituencies include some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the city. These schools’ boards can and must incorporate some modicum of social responsibility into their decision-making framework.
The difficult truth is that there can be no justice without sacrifice, no progress without discomfort. Those who hold the power cannot empower others without giving up even the tiniest bit of our own privileges and exemptions. So I say to New York City’s elite independent schools: I know you’re uncomfortable with this; it’s understandable. But it’s time to hold ourselves to a higher standard of citizenship in this city we love. It’s time to live our ideals of educational excellence for all children — not just our own.
Andrea Salwen Kopel is the parent of a 2020 high school graduate and is executive director of the National Council of Jewish Women New York (NCJW NY). NCJW NY has taken a stance in support of the proposed NYSED regulations. However, the views expressed here are her own, and do not represent the views of the NCJW.
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