In the two years since Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to investigate accusations of subpar secular education at 39 charedi schools, the city has visited just six of them — all prearranged.
The information, which came to light when The New York Times tweeted a leaked DOE letter, was seen by secular education activists and one politician as proof of what they had long suspected — that the city is dragging its feet on its promise to look into claims that tens of thousands of yeshiva students were graduating high school with less than a third-grade secular education.
“We tried to be patient,” City Council Education Committee Chair Daniel Dromm told The Jewish Week. “We’ve waited two years and two months … and then I find out from media reports that they’ve only gone to six yeshivas? … And so one has to really wonder if they’re being genuine in their intent to fully investigate this issue, and follow the law.”
Fed up with the stalling, Dromm said he would ask Councilman Chaim Deutsch, who chairs the Subcommittee on Non-Public Schools, to hold a joint hearing on the topic. Deutsch did not respond to requests for comment via telephone and email.
Of the some two dozen city and state lawmakers contacted by The Jewish Week over the past two years, only Dromm and West Village Assemblywoman Deborah Glick have agreed to speak on the record about the investigation.
“Disadvantaging young people in their ability to be educated enough to live in this world and provide for a family is a problem.”
“I oppose sex discrimination regardless of which direction the sex discrimination is going,” Glick told The Jewish Week. “Disadvantaging young people in their ability to be educated enough to live in this world and provide for a family is a problem.” She said she would follow-up with the DOE regarding the investigation’s progress “and if the answers are insufficient” she would contact state education officials.
The mayor vowed to look into yeshiva curricula in July 2015, after the secular education advocacy organization Yaffed (Young Advocates For Fair Education) filed a complaint with the DOE accusing 38 yeshivas in Brooklyn and one in Queens of graduating hundreds of male chasidic high school students each year without any studies in science, civics or social studies and with only the most rudimentary English and math skills. (Chasidic girls receive less religious education and significantly more secular coursework.)
In the 26 months since the mayor launched the investigation, city officials have remained tight-lipped, repeating at each inquiry that they are taking the complaint “seriously” and that the investigation is “ongoing.”
Yaffed activists disagree, arguing that these yeshivas make no secret of their curriculum and city and state education officials intentionally turning a blind eye.
Chaim Levin, who attended the chasidic yeshiva Oholei Torah in Crown Heights through ninth grade, said that his alma matter doesn’t even “pretend to” teach secular subjects. (Levin is a former Jewish Week intern.)
“They are proudly and openly breaking the law … and it is so hard to understand why this city refuses to enforce its own laws,” he said at a Sept. 6 news conference (above) announcing the release of Yaffed’s own report on yeshiva education.
While the city remains mum on the investigation’s progress, despite having promised to release a report last week (Sept. 22), the leaked Aug. 25 letter gives a clear picture of what the city has, and has not, done.
According to the letter, which DOE attorney Howard Friedman sent to yeshiva representative and attorney Avi Schick, city officials spent the first year trying — sporadically — to convince yeshivas to improve secular education on their own. The “DOE would like to continue the broader dialogue we have been having with yeshiva and community leaders regarding secular curricula,” Friedman wrote, adding that the DOE also wants to “continue discussions with curriculum experts” and that it “expects” that teacher trainings on using secular materials “will continue” with a DOE representative in attendance.
“What is it going to take for this administration to care about the welfare of ALL of New York City’s children?”
According to the letter, four dialogue-oriented meetings were held between Aug. 2015 and Aug. 2016. Officials only began visiting schools in the spring of 2017; all six were pre-scheduled. Friedman asked to schedule the remaining 33 visits between the beginning of September and the end of June. Asked how many visits the DOE has scheduled so far, a spokeswoman said, only, that they “are scheduling additional visits for this school year.”
Dromm, a former teacher, said he understood the need for some scheduled visits, to build relationships and allow schools to show their strengths, but that “a sampling of unannounced visits” is also necessary.
At the press conference, Levin noted that in the year and a half since Yaffed’s last press conference “nothing has changed.”
“What is it going to take for this administration to care about the welfare of ALL of New York City’s children?” he asked. “Can Mayor de Blasio look my classmates, schoolmates and I in the face and tell us that we don’t matter?”
Levin also criticized the mayor for sending a letter to Oholei Torah praising the school for “giving its students the tools they need to build solid foundations for their futures.” A de Blasio spokeswoman said the mayor sent the school the “standard letter” he sends when declining an invitation to an event.
“People often say about the mayor that maybe he’ll be freer to do something after the election,” Yaffed founder and executive director Naftuli Moster said in an email, “but the truth is, there’s always another election after this one, and if he sells principle for votes there’s really no end to it.”
Dromm agrees that the voting booth is the main motivator.
“We still don’t have real political support on this … It’s myself and Deborah Glick, and no other elected official,” he said.
“I think that it is incumbent upon people in office to ensure that our laws are followed, especially when they involve children.”
“You would think that those who consider themselves progressive council members would not be afraid to speak out on this issue. But many elected officials are afraid to touch this because of the voting block that chasidic and other ultra-Orthodox communities present,” he said. “If you have any aspirations of running for citywide office and you’re talking about a community that can deliver minimally, 7,000 to 8,000 votes at a time, it’s something that you think about when you take on issues like this.”
Glick agreed that it’s something she thinks about, but said other considerations are more important. “I think that it is incumbent upon people in office to ensure that our laws are followed, especially when they involve children.”
Asked to comment, a de Blasio spokeswoman wrote that “the investigation is ongoing and we are treating this matter with utmost seriousness.” She said the visits were scheduled, rather than unannounced, “in accordance with State guidance.”
Oholei Torah officials referred The Jewish Week to a statement by Parents for Religious Liberty in Schools, which says: “Parents choose yeshivas because they want their children to receive a religious education that is central to their cultural identity, and that teaches young men and women to become thriving, respected members of the community.”
The statement says increasing secular instruction too much, would “undermine” the schools’ “mission,” but it does say that yeshivas “have taken tangible steps to upgrade their secular studies programs.”
Critics say these steps are not enough.
“I feel that this is an extremely important issue — one of the largest issues of educational neglect in our time, and it really needs to be examined,” Dromm told The Jewish Week. “How can we let 57,000 students fall through the holes here and not get a substantially equivalent education? It’s immoral.”