Secular education in Chasidic schools

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The recent, highly anticipated New York Times “expose” of Chasidic yeshivah education in New York State did not disappoint. The lengthy, front-page article painted a disturbing picture of a deliberately deficient secular education program in Chasidic schools, fraudulent misdirection of government funding for school programs and services, widespread corporal punishment within the schools and a growing problem of drug abuse and homelessness for those seeking to escape the oppressive strictures of their Chasidic upbringing. So, it came as no surprise that a few days later, New York’s Board of Regents voted overwhelmingly to impose a system for review of non-public education providers within the state and the enforcement of a secular curriculum in all schools.

Reaction to the article and the regulatory move were predictable. Those on the left focus on the Chasidic boys’ high schools’ refusal to provide basic English and mathematics instruction for their students; the students’ resulting abysmal test score failures; and the impropriety of these schools taking government funding for what is essentially an entirely religious education program. Those on the right challenge the bias and condescension of the report and those who promoted it; criticize the lack of understanding or appreciation of the Chasidic community’s commitment to education — which doesn’t define success as the achievement of secular literacy; and emphasize the remarkable success of the intentionally insular Chasidic community, which has cultivated a thriving and growing community committed to religious values, volunteerism and charitable giving. And, of course, they defend the Chasidic community’s right to decide what is right for their own children — no less so than the Amish community, which the U.S. Supreme Court exempted from high school instruction a half-century ago.

As is often the case in these kinds of debates, those presenting the arguments often talk past one another. Each side is so focused on its own talking points that they ignore some of the fundamental issues that create the problem. For example, very little of the commentary focuses on the meaning or the proper measure of the regulatory requirement of “substantial equivalency” in connection with education provided in non-public schools. Nor do the warring advocates explore whether possible means can be developed to address the targeted schools’ performance problems without unnecessarily impinging on their religious concerns.

In this regard, the Regents’ regulatory approach, which imposes teaching requirements rather than establishing performance measures seems particularly problematic. If the intention is to improve the lives of children enrolled in Chasidic schools, and regulators are willing to respect religious concerns of the institutions, why mandate instruction standards or hours of commitment? Instead, why not consider an outcome-based standard — equally applicable to public, private and home-schooled children? All of the schools would be judged by the same standard and would be subject to the same consequences.

Such an approach would, of course, require the State Education Department to engage with the Chasidic schools — to understand their education and religious concerns and to help work through them. The alternative of imposing instruction requirements makes little sense, as it almost guarantees interminable litigation and further delay of the very educational goal the state claims to be pursuing.

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