THE CITY filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the city Department of Education after the agency refused to provide documents related to its investigation of the content and quality of instruction at Jewish religious schools in Brooklyn.
The DOE launched its probe of the yeshivas in mid-2015 in response to complaints from former students and advocates connected to the group Yaffed, who alleged that little to no instruction in subjects such as English and math was being provided at roughly three dozen Orthodox schools.
In August 2018, after advocates accused the city and Mayor Bill de Blasio of slow-walking the probe, then-Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza wrote a letter to the state Education Department revealing that 15 of 28 yeshivas at the heart of the investigation had refused entry to DOE officials.
State guidelines requiring that education at private schools be “substantially equivalent” to instruction at public schools governed the inquiry, even as those standards have been shifting in recent years.
It wasn’t until December 2019 that Carranza confirmed officials had visited 28 yeshivas, which he identified in a follow-up letter to state education officials, and revealed summary findings without specifying the conditions uncovered at each school.
The investigation found that just two of the yeshivas visited by the DOE could prove they provided “substantially equivalent” instruction to their public school counterparts.
Five of the 28 schools were described as providing an “underdeveloped” level of learning, including some showing “no evidence that English is consistently used as a language of instruction,” according to the update provided to SED.
DOE Excuse Flunks ‘Smell Test’
Carranza wrote that his agency was sending a letter to each of the 28 schools “communicating the information, observations, and findings specific to each school.” THE CITY requested copies of those letters under the state’s Freedom of Information Law on Jan. 2, 2020.
More than 10 months later, on Nov. 16, 2020, the DOE provided two of the 28 letters — regarding the schools where instruction was deemed substantially equivalent. Officials denied access to the remaining 26 on the basis that sharing them would “interfere with ongoing law enforcement investigations.”
A month later, THE CITY filed an administrative appeal with the DOE. City education officials denied the appeal on Dec. 28, 2020 — again arguing that the investigation was ongoing and that release of the letters would interfere with the probe.
On Tuesday, Ava E. Lubell and Heather E. Murray, attorneys with the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic, filed the so-called Article 78 petition on THE CITY’s behalf challenging the DOE’s denial.
The Manhattan Supreme Court filing refutes the DOE’s claims of an ongoing investigation or that releasing the balance of the letters would somehow interfere.
“The public has a right to know whether students are getting the education they deserve under the law,” said Jere Hester, THE CITY’s editor in chief. “The city Department of Education’s excuse that the investigation is ongoing after nearly six years fails the smell test.”
DOE spokesperson Danielle Filson said the agency stands by its decision to withhold the records.
“All students deserve a high-quality education, and a request for records was denied in accordance with provisions in the Freedom of Information Law to prevent interference with an ongoing investigation,” she said. “Our ultimate goal is to ensure children attending nonpublic schools are receiving substantially equivalent instruction, as required by law, and the disclosure of the letters prior to the investigation’s completion would impede this process.”
The two letters provided under FOIL by the DOE were both dated December 2019 and addressed to two Williamsburg branches of the Bais Ruchel Elementary school.
Both sites were deemed to meet the state’s educational standards after observers visited a number of classrooms, where they witnessed lessons delivered in English on the subtraction of fractions, the shape and structure of cells, and a discussion on the pros and cons of the Louisiana Purchase.
“We believe that your school is providing instruction that is substantially equivalent to the instruction provided in the public schools in your district,” said the letters, which were signed by Carranza.
However, he also noted that officials “did not see evidence of instruction” in history at one site, and in physical education at both sites.
The city’s Department of Investigation in late 2019 found that the de Blasio administration had in the summer of 2017 delayed the release of an interim report on its yeshiva findings as part of “political horse-trading.”
DOI found that the mayor’s office had agreed to the delay to ensure that state lawmakers would vote to renew mayoral control of public schools.
The interim report that was finally released in August 2018 took the form of Carranza’s first letter to the state Education Department, notifying officials of the access issues at the 15 schools.
The DOI reported that de Blasio knew about the delay in releasing the interim report, but it found no criminality or violations of the city’s code of ethics.
More recently, the issue of the city and state’s oversight of education at religious schools has been discussed in the 2021 race for mayor.
Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang said at a forum hosted by a progressive Jewish organization that religious schools should be left alone “as long as the outcomes are good.”
City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia and investment banker Ray McGuire have spoken about a collaborative rather than confrontational approach to the schools, POLITICO New York reported.
That’s been the approach touted by de Blasio and Carranza throughout the city’s probe. Carranza stepped down as chancellor last month and has been succeeded by Meisha Ross Porter.
Last month, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams praised an unnamed yeshiva that he visited in the borough, telling the Forward, “We must fight to change how we evaluate schools and understand the importance of culture and religion in school.”