A nonprofit advocacy group that for six years has lobbied for charedi schools to offer a curriculum that follows New York State educational requirements is ramping up its battle this week with a federal lawsuit.
Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED) on Tuesday filed a suit in U.S. District Court here that calls on the state to enforce in charedi schools its regulations for the content and length of secular studies. The suit alleges that many charedi elementary schools and high schools, mostly chasidic and mostly in New York City and Rockland County, have for years flouted these regulations, offering students, particularly in all-male schools, a substandard secular education or none at all.
According to the suit — defendants are Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa — charedi educational practices have deprived students of an adequate preparation in several secular areas of study, limiting students’ career opportunities and earning potential.
These practices, according to the lawsuit, are now protected by an amendment in the budget of the state’s Education Law that Cuomo signed in April.
The suit alleges that the so-called “Felder Amendment,” named for Simcha Felder, a charedi member of the State Senate who introduced the amendment, created a “carve-out” exception for charedi schools that allows them to determine for themselves if their curricula meet the statutory requirement to offer “substantial equivalent instruction” to that mandated in the state’s public school curricula. Felder represents a largely chasidic district that encompasses Borough Park and Flatbush.
The suit claims that the amendment violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects the freedom of religion, and bars the government from establishing an official religion or favoring one religion over another.
The suit seeks “a declaration that the Felder Amendment is unconstitutional and an injunction preventing Defendants … from taking action consistent with the Felder Amendment and to maintain the status quo.”
“We want to maintain the statutory status quo, which sets the [educational] requirements,” said Eric Huang, a partner at the Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan law firm that is representing YAFFED on a pro bono basis. “It’s a very strong case. The [state] law is governed by the U.S. Constitution.”
“The Felder Amendment, if allowed to stand,” the lawsuit states, “frustrates the mission of YAFFED, which is to ensure that all students within the ultra-Orthodox community receive the critical tools and skill sets needed for long-term personal growth and self-sufficient futures.”
“We’re sending a clear message — that students deserve an education that is guaranteed by law,” Naftuli Moster, founder and executive director of YAFFED, said at a press conference Tuesday at the law firm’s Midtown offices.
Moster, who grew up in the Belzer chasidic community, said city and state oversight efforts during this decade have been inadequate, failing to protect students’ interests. (The city’s Department of Education is currently investigating the charges of substandard education at 36 yeshivas.)
YAFFED has earlier concentrated on educating politicians about the issue, and raising awareness in the chasidic community through activities like billboards and a Yiddish-language newsletter.
“The ‘Felder Law’ is dangerous,” possibly establishing a precedent for other communities that wish to limit their members’ educational opportunities or for other politicians who wield decision-making power, Moster said. “If we allow one legislator to hijack the budget process, what’s next?”
“The Felder Amendment,” the lawsuit states, is “the result of a deliberately timed plan to hijack the negotiations for the New York state budget at the end of March 2018 and maximize the leverage held by Senator Felder as a critical vote in order for the Republicans in the New York Senate to pass the budget … excessively entang[ling] the government with religion.”
Felder, a Democrat who caucuses with Republican colleagues, is considered a swing vote in the Senate.
Michael Tobman, a spokesman for the Alliance for Yeshiva Education, a coalition of area charedi schools that was formed in response to the YAFFED challenge, said a court is not the proper secular venue for resolving this issue. YAFFED seeks “radical change … they want it now, period,” he said. “That’s not how government or legislation works. There is an appropriate separation between what can be done in different branches of government.
“This is really a legislative and administrative matter,” Tobman said, adding that the members of the Alliance question YAFFED’s appeal to the court system, while agreeing that some change in the schools’ curriculum may be inevitable. “Is something going to happen? Yes.”
The YAFFED lawsuit comes three years after parents in several East Ramapo chasidic yeshivas, and former students who had attended those schools, filed a class-action suit in U.S. District Court that claimed that the schools provided an inadequate secular education.
According to the lawsuit, some 115,000 children are enrolled in 273 charedi schools in New York State.