Following sharp criticism by education activists that the city’s plan to investigate complaints of subpar secular education at dozens of chasidic yeshivas didn’t go far enough, a city official told The Jewish Week that the probe has been expanded to include school visits.
Department of Education (DOE) officials promised the initial probe after receiving a much-publicized letter signed by 52 yeshiva graduates, teachers and parents alleging that chasidic boys at dozens of yeshivas in Brooklyn received so little secular education that most were graduating barely able to read and write English or do math beyond fractions.
The July 27 letter named 38 boys’ yeshivas in Brooklyn — mostly in Borough Park and Williamsburg — and one in Queens that provide students with just 90 minutes of English and math per day (and none on Fridays). There are no science or history classes at all, the letter said, and secular education stops altogether when students are about 13 so they can study Jewish texts full time.
Initially, the DOE probe was going to rely solely on documents provided by the schools themselves, such as class schedules.
Secular education advocates decried the lack of school visits and student interviews, and the City Council’s education chair, Daniel Dromm, in a story first reported by The Jewish Week in partnership with WNYC, said that if the city wasn’t going to do a thorough probe, his committee would do an independent investigation.
Now, DOE officials appear to be reversing course.
At a roundtable discussion with reporters last week, Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said that superintendents would, in fact, be visiting the yeshivas as part of an approach “to partner with those programs, to learn more about what they’re doing” and “offer support.”
Throughout the discussion, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña stressed that her office is looking at the investigation as more of a partnership than a probe.
“We’re seeing really strong compliance, in yeshivas and Catholic schools, with the UPK program,” she said, referring to the mayor’s expanded universal preschool program, in which many chasidic yeshivas participate. Schools taking part follow a city-mandated curriculum and have access to DOE resources and support.
“They’re thrilled with it,” Fariña continued, “they like it, they find it very useful. So our first approach is going to be: How do you take what you learned in pre-K and move it to kindergarten? It’s all about listening. It’s all about reading and writing and how do we help teachers in all schools in the city.
“We’re not coming in as chief inspectors, we’re coming in as chief supporters, and I think that’s where we can do something,” Fariña continued, adding that “parents make choices to send their kids to these schools. This is not a Band-Aid [to a lack of public school seats]; it’s a family choice.”
The DOE hasn’t responded to questions about whether all 39 schools cited in the letter would be visited, and whether the visits would be scheduled or unannounced. However, it did send The Jewish Week a statement reiterating that the city “takes its responsibility to address any complaint seriously,” is “reviewing” schools according to “protocol,” and if any schools are found deficient, the DOE said it will “work to support these schools to ensure they can provide the appropriate education their students need to thrive.”
Reactions from activists about the DOE’s new approach to its yeshiva probe ranged from cautious optimism to outright anger.
“To me, it’s just plain infuriating,” said Naftuli Moster, founder of Young Advocates for Fair Education, aka Yaffed, which spearheaded the letter to the DOE.
While he called the inclusion of school visits “encouraging,” he doesn’t understand how DOE officials can conduct a “real investigation” without talking to anyone from his organization.
Norman Siegel, Yaffed’s attorney, was more encouraged about the news that the probe would include school visits — as long as they’re unannounced.
“The news, if accurate, is encouraging,” he said. “It’s the right thing for DOE to do, and so I’m cautiously optimistic now that this investigation will be the kind of investigation we’ve been asking for.”
Most political observers agree that the vast majority of elected officials are hesitant to go up against chasidic communities for fear of losing their ironclad bloc votes. Besides Dromm, not a single elected official contacted by The Jewish Week — including progressive politicians like Public Advocate Letitia James and Councilmen Brad Lander and Stephen Levin, who represent parts of Borough Park and Williamsburg, respectively — would discuss the issue.
Mayor Bill de Blasio also has close ties with chasidic leaders, winning multiple endorsements and fulfilling such campaign promises as getting the health department to drop the parental consent form for metzitzah b’peh, a circumcision ritual that can transmit herpes, and streamlining the reimbursement process for special education, an issue for which the Orthodox community spent years lobbying.
As of Wednesday, no politicians have joined Dromm in calling for a more in-depth investigation. And neither the DOE nor the city’s Department of Investigation have responded to his letters urging officials to include in the probe school visits, student interviews and a meeting with Yaffed. (Dromm also urged the DOE to “provide an immediate response” to The Jewish Week’s Freedom of Information Law requests for documents related to the investigation, which have been delayed for more than six months).
“I don’t really get it. I feel like, morally, we’re obliged to speak out,” he said. But, he said, the fear of going against chasidic communities is just too widespread.
“It’s like the third rail of politics,” he said. “Don’t touch the issue.”