After four years of complaints about the near-dearth of secular education at dozens of chasidic yeshivas in Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park, a city councilman has jumped into the fray, vowing to do everything in his power to ensure the probe is thorough, The Jewish Week and WNYC have learned.
In a recent interview in his Jackson Heights office, City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who chairs the education committee, called the allegations — which were outlined in a July letter to city school superintendents by the advocacy group Yaffed — “very serious” and, if substantiated, akin to “abuse or neglect of students.”
Dromm’s comments came shortly after city education officials told The Jewish Week that the DOE was looking into claims by 52 former students, teachers and parents that 39 chasidic yeshivas were failing to meet their obligation to provide an education that is “substantially equivalent” to that offered in the public schools. (The DOE denied The Jewish Week’s Freedom of Information Law request seeking the names of the 39 yeshivas, citing a “law enforcement” investigation. A spokesman clarified that this referred to its own probe into whether education laws are being enforced with respect to these yeshivas.)
The DOE said its probe would entail requesting documents like student schedules and lesson plans directly from the yeshivas to assess whether they are complying with the law.
This does not sit well with Dromm, who said he expected the education department to do more.
“I would expect that they would have high standards in this,” he said. “That they would go to the schools. That they would visit. That they would interview students and that they would do a thorough investigation of what exactly is happening or not happening in these schools.”
This kind of in-depth probe is critical, he said, because “we need to know that the money that we’re giving them in terms of textbooks, in terms of transportation or whatever it is [is] being used in a school system that is correctly implementing the state mandates.”
Dromm said he would use his authority as committee chair to have a “formal meeting with the department education to see in which direction their investigation is going to go” — and to conduct his own if he is not satisfied. That, he said, could ultimately include public hearings.
Dromm is the only politician who has publicly advocated for an investigation, though Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a statement proclaiming “zero tolerance” for subpar secular education in yeshivas.
As someone who taught in the public schools for 25 years, this issue is particularly close to Dromm’s heart.
“We can’t have students leaving schools in New York City that can’t speak English, that have no idea of science or history or social studies. That is not allowed by the state, and we cannot continue to allow that to happen anywhere.”
This story is part of a joint investigation between The Jewish Week and WNYC; a four-part series about secular education at yeshivas will air on WNYC (AM 820 and 93.9 FM) beginning on Tuesday, Sept. 8. You can hear it on Morning Edition (6-9 a.m.) or on All Things Considered (4-7 p.m.). You can also listen online at wnyc.org.
Amy Sara Clark is deputy managing editor; Hella Winston is special correspondent.