The New York Department of Education (DOE) has a long record of inaction and delays when it comes to monitoring compliance with a law requiring non-public schools to offer secular studies until the age of 16. In September 2015, an investigative report in The Jewish Week by Amy Sara Clark and Hella Winston explored the world of boys’ yeshivas in Brooklyn and found a number of young men who had received little if any secular education.
The situation has been known for years, but it was not until after advocates took up the cause in 2012 that officials were forced to take the matter seriously. But change is slow in coming.
The Jewish Week filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request with the DOE, in April 2015, seeking “any communication” between DOE staff and parents, students or former students regarding secular instruction in the boys’ yeshivas over the last five years.
For more than a year and a half we have received a letter each month noting that “the investigation is ongoing and we remain dedicated to this process.”
We are far from alone in our frustration. The DOE has a failing record in terms of transparency and sharing information, though it is mandated to do so. “They can’t do that, it’s contrary to law,” says Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.
Ratcheting up our efforts, we sued the DOE with the pro bono help of attorney David Stern. On Monday, after all this time and a day before our court date, the DOE replied to our FOIL request, saying it had complied with one of our five questions (true, a list of private schools that receive Title III funding), and noting it had no information on our other four requests. Stern went to court on Tuesday and argued that the DOE did not give The Jewish Week sufficient time to address its 11th hour response. The hearing was adjourned until February.
“It’s outrageous, they sandbagged us,” Stern said, noting that no response was forthcoming until the day before the case was to be argued, and “then saying they don’t have any records. That could have been done one year and eight months ago.”
The irony is that as public advocate, Bill de Blasio fought for more transparency from schools and city government. As mayor, though, he is continuing a disturbing trend of stalling rather than informing the public of its right to know.