When he began a quixotic crusade four years ago to force charedi yeshivas in Brooklyn to do a better job teaching secular subjects, it seemed like a lonely fight.
After all, the boyish-looking Naftuli Moster, 33, who says his own yeshiva education left him woefully unprepared for modern life, was taking on City Hall and a mayor who had forged deep ties in charedi Orthodox Brooklyn.
And he was going up against powerful charedi rabbis who believed that the education of their boys wasn’t any of the city’s or state’s business. He quickly became public enemy No. 1 in Borough Park and among ultra-Orthodox yeshiva administrators .
So when Moster spoke from the steps of City Hall this week — just days after a long-delayed city Department of Education (DOE) investigation documented for the first time that there are yeshivas in the city that are failing their students when it comes to teaching them English, history and science — there was a sense of vindication. And perhaps a hint of anger.
“This is a huge win for us and our credibility because for years our opponents called us liars,” said Moster, the founder and executive director of Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED). “It’s still not a win for the thousands of children who are actually being denied a basic education.”
Added Moster: “Let me be clear: these are not poorly performing schools. They are not schools at all. … To be a poorly performing school, the school would have to teach the required subjects. But these schools don’t teach the minimum required subjects for any minimal amount of time. What makes them a school? New York law certainly doesn’t.”
Of the 28 schools visited, only two are currently considered “substantially equivalent” in such secular subjects as English and mathematics as required by New York State law, and one is “on the verge” of becoming so, according to the DOE. The report was encouraging about 20 others, saying they are demonstrating “a range of proficiency” in meeting the requirements or are on their way.
But one yeshiva official who spoke on condition of anonymity seized on the report to question what all the fuss is about. He said the DOE found that only five of the 28 schools it investigated “are underdeveloped in demonstrating or providing evidence of substantially equivalent instruction.” (The DOE did not name them.)
And the rest, he said, “are going to get there” in terms of providing the required instruction in secular education.
“The DOE is making plans to remediate its concerns,” he said, noting that in its report the DOE said it believes it is “possible for all schools within the scope of this inquiry to achieve substantial equivalency within three years.”
In addition, the yeshiva official noted that although questions have been raised about five yeshivas, there are275 yeshivas in the city educating 110,000 students. His figures include Modern Orthodox as well as charedi yeshivas.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, said “the five schools have a particularly long way to go because they were deemed deficient, unlike the large majority of the schools investigated. Those exceptions, in fact, prove the rule — that most of the yeshivas are either in compliance or well on their way there. Apparently, parents of children in the yeshivas that were investigated were happy with the educations their children were receiving.”
And Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools (PEARLS), a group of families of students, educators, religious leaders and community members, issued a statement in response to the DOE report to point out that the yeshiva system “continues to outperform the City’s public schools by every metric, including higher graduation rates, better test scores, greater attendance and more positive outcomes. … As with all school systems, yeshivas always strive to improve and adopt best practices.”
Moster told The Jewish Week that the complaint he submitted to the DOE was signed by 52 students who had graduated from charedi yeshivas, as well as by parents of students. Moster said it was not meant to single out every problem yeshiva in the city but rather to provide “a sample of the problem. … Yeshiva leaders would love to reduce this to a problem of only 28 or 29 yeshivas. But to have 26 of 28 yeshivas not meeting the bare minimum standard is damning enough.”
He also dismissed the response that meeting this educational standard is a relatively small problem. Moster explained that his focus is strictly on charedi yeshivas — of which there are about 80 in the city — and not Modern Orthodox schools.
“This is a major violation against thousands of children by unrepenting institutions,” Moster insisted. “Of course we need to expose them. I was surrounded [at City Hall] by at least a half-dozen yeshiva parents and graduates. We have demonstrated how widespread this issue is and that there is widespread concern in the yeshiva community.”
Charges Of “Horse-trading”
Moster noted that the DOE report is “damaging” also to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who went to great pains to delay its release, according to a report by the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI) and the Special Commissioner of Investigation. Those findings were published just a day before the DOE’s report was released. The report found that a major reason for the delayed release of the DOE report was what it termed “political horse-trading.”
The DOI probe found that although no laws were broken, the de Blasio administration delayed publication of the DOE’s findings to appease state lawmakers who at the time were discussing whether to extend the city’s oversight of its public school system. Some of those lawmakers were facing pressure from their Orthodox Jewish constituents who opposed the DOE’s yeshiva investigation.
According to the DOE report, 11 of the yeshivas investigated “are providing substantially equivalent instruction or are well-developed in moving towards providing substantially equivalent instruction. Two of the schools are currently considered substantially equivalent and one is on the verge of becoming substantially equivalent.”
It said the remaining 12 yeshivas “are developing in their provision of substantially equivalent instruction. School leaders and faculty were in the process of integrating elements of relevant curricula, including some instruction in English, and textbooks in English for at least English Language Arts and mathematics. …”
Regarding the five problem schools, DOE investigators reported that they were unable to find evidence of plans to achieve “substantially equivalent instruction.” In addition, “school leaders and faculty did not demonstrate implementation of [a] relevant curriculum, such as in English or mathematics. There is no evidence English is consistently used as a language for instruction (for example, textbooks are not written in English).”
De Blasio was relatively upbeat in discussing the DOE report on WNYC Radio last week.
“The most important question is how we are doing in assuring that children who go to yeshivas get a sound education,” he said. “There is actually a lot of progress in these schools. All but five are going to get where they need to get. There are five, [and] if they don’t make serious progress soon, they will be in danger of financial sanctions or worse. … The vast majority are doing what DOE is telling them to do.”
De Blasio stressed that “the law does not give us the power to simply dictate” what schools must do. Rather, he said, there has to be a “process of moving these schools to some place better. And the vast majority are doing this consistently.”
At the City Hall press conference, both Moster and former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger demanded to know who was involved in the horse-trading.
“We have city hall players, state players trading on the educational rights, the educational lives and learning opportunities of thousands of young people,” she said. “It’s time for action.”
Moster called also for an expansion of the Department of Education’s investigation “to include other chasidic yeshivas that weren’t necessarily named in the complaint.”
Joining him in that call was Beatrice Weber, a mother of 10 children whose youngest, a 7-year-old boy, is a student at a chasidic school not named in the report.
“What does that mean for those schools [not investigated]?” she asked. “Will there be no oversight? How will we as parents know that our children are receiving a rightful education?” n
Stewart Ain and Shira Hanau are staff writers.