City Hall Blocks Release of Yeshiva Reviews in Court Fight vs. THE CITY
The Department of Education says that releasing documents detailing the findings of a probe into the standards at religious schools would derail an ongoing investigation.
Mayor Eric Adams’ administration is refusing to release findings on the quality of non-religious education at 26 Hasidic Jewish schools in Brooklyn — even as New York State steps up the city’s enforcement responsibilities for instruction at religious schools.
Department of Education spokesperson Nathaniel Styer indicated on Wednesday that city lawyers had no plan to drop their challenge of a lawsuit filed by THE CITY last year, which seeks letters the department sent to 28 yeshivas in late 2019 as part of its years-long probe into allegations that the schools were scarcely providing secular education to students.
Those letters communicated “the information, observations, and findings specific to each school,” according to an update on the probe sent by former schools Chancellor Richard Carranza to the State Board of Education in December 2019.
DOE officials refused to provide 26 of those letters to THE CITY under a public disclosure request — made through the Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL — submitted in January 2020, even as they provided letters sent to two yeshivas that determined instruction there had been satisfactory.
The DOE and former Mayor Bill de Blasio maintained that the investigation, launched in July 2015 following a complaint submitted by the advocacy group Young Advocates for Fair Education (Yaffed), was ongoing — and that releasing the letters would interfere with the probe.
The Adams administration maintains the same position, even as it has the discretion to make the letters public. “As these investigations continue, these documents remain exempt from FOIL,” Styer wrote in an email to THE CITY on Wednesday.
Earlier this week, following an article in The New York Times that pointed at persistent deficiencies in the secular education taught at many Hasidic boys’ schools, Adams said he was reviving the seven-year-old probe. De Blasio had told The Times the investigation was stymied by the COVID pandemic.
Freedom of Information
Adams also said he intends to closely examine the article’s findings, which included results from 2019 state math and reading tests that showed every single student at a yeshiva serving more than 1,000 elementary schoolers had failed to meet standards of proficiency.
“I’m not going to look at a story. I want a thorough investigation. I want an independent review and that’s what the city has to do,” Adams said on Monday, in response to a question about the article that was published on Sunday. “And the chancellor has made it clear that we are going to make sure every child receives a quality education in this city.”
De Blasio didn’t respond to a message from THE CITY on Wednesday seeking comment on the status of the probe when he left office in Dec. 2021.
Yaffed Executive Director Naftuli Moster said his group also has struggled to obtain documents and information about specific yeshivas that DOE looked into over the course of its probe.
“They’re claiming it’s because of an investigation, but really every indication is that it’s just to protect the yeshivas,” Moster told THE CITY.
The Times reported that, at the urging of a yeshiva representative, Avi Schick, Carranza’s update to state officials didn’t specify which schools were found to be deficient.
Schick didn’t respond to an email seeking comment, but he denied the charge through a representative.
Carranza’s 2019 letter instead gave a summary of site-visit and survey findings that showed just two of the 28 schools met state requirements that education at private schools be “substantially equivalent” to the instruction at public schools.
The letter said that five schools could provide no evidence that “English is consistently used as a language of instruction.”
The remaining schools were somewhere in-between, but in some, textbooks in English were only “in the process of” being integrated into the curriculum.
Friends in High Places
Even as the DOE said it was investigating the yeshivas, one Brooklyn Jewish school earlier this year told parents it would no longer offer secular courses to eighth graders, in apparent violation of state guidelines.
Yeshivas, like other private schools, have bristled at the prospect of greater oversight from city and state education officials. Some advocates for Jewish institutions have insisted that their religious courses impart knowledge of vital aspects of math, science and logical reasoning.
A full three years into the probe, Carranza alerted state officials in August 2018 that 15 out of the dozens of yeshivas that Department of Education officials tried to visit refused to grant them access. But it would later be revealed that some of the delays were of the administration’s own making.
Critics charge that the schools have long benefited from political considerations that derive from the Orthodox Jewish community’s ability to marshal votes for particular causes or candidates in relatively high numbers.
De Blasio had a close relationship with some key leaders in Hasidic, also called ultra-Orthodox or Haredi, communities. That started when he was a City Council member in a Brooklyn district that included portions of the largely ultra-Orthodox Borough Park neighborhood and continuing through his time as mayor.
In 2019, the city Department of Investigation found that the de Blasio administration had agreed to delay an interim report on the status of its yeshivas probe in exchange for assurances from state lawmakers that they would extend mayoral control of city schools.
While DOI found no criminality or ethical violations, its report found that de Blasio had been aware of the “political horse trading” between City Hall and state lawmakers, who weren’t named in the report.
As Brooklyn borough president, Adams, too, enjoyed a warm relationship with the Hasidic community.
During his campaign for mayor, he visited an unidentified yeshiva last March — which Brooklyn Assemblymember Simcha Eichenstein said was one of the 28 under investigation by the DOE — and praised the instructional environment he witnessed there.
“I was really impressed by what I saw,” Adams told the Forward, an independent news outlet covering American Jewish life. “Watching those children understand grammar, understand English, saying they like writing and reading, it was amazing.”
Adams also told the publication at the time, “We must fight to change how we evaluate schools and understand the importance of culture and religion in school.”
Regents Set Standards
As the DOE’s investigation has dragged on, state education officials have gone through a similarly drawn-out process of reforming the guidelines that govern education in New York’s private schools.
On Tuesday, after nearly five years of fits and starts prompted by a different lawsuit, the state Board of Regents approved new standards that could lead to the pulling of public funding from private schools that can’t prove they’re teaching essential subjects such as English and math.
The newly approved guidelines also clarify that it’s the local education departments that are responsible for enforcement of the standards, rather than the state.
While yeshivas are funded privately, Jewish schools in and around New York City have received an average of $250 million in public funds in each of the last four years, The Times reported, for supplemental services including student busing, school food and security enhancements.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has refused to weigh in on the debate over instruction at and oversight of yeshivas, saying it’s outside her purview because she doesn’t control the State Board of Regents — whose members are appointed by the legislature.
But City Comptroller Brad Lander, one of the few public officials who has been outspoken in responding to the issue this week, said his office would help monitor the public funds that private schools receive.
“The government has an oversight responsibility to ensure those public dollars are spent as intended,” Lander said on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, in recent years both the city and state have failed to hold yeshivas to appropriate educational standards. It is time for that to change.”