New York – A movement to enforce higher educational standards in the secular studies curriculum at private schools has gained momentum, with a noted civil rights lawyer petitioning city and state officials to enforce existing state educational laws in New York City yeshivas.
Norman Siegel, the former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union who has fought for numerous activists in the courtroom, is representing Naftuli Moster and YAFFED, Young Advocates for Fair Education.
As previously reported on VIN News, Moster has been waging a campaign for the last year and a half to force yeshivas to supply their students with a better secular education as required by the New York State Department of Education.
In a December 8th letter addressed to Governor Cuomo, Attorney General Schneiderman, Mayor de Blasio and New York City Schools Chancellor Farina, Siegel asked both city and state authorities to investigate the quality of secular education in certain Orthodox yeshivas and to take the necessary steps to ensure that these schools are in compliance with state laws.
Siegel’s letter does not mention the names of any specific yeshivas, but Siegel said that he hopes to meet with officials and that he would consider listing yeshivas that he believes are failing, should he be asked to do so in that meeting.
“They have an obligation under the law to provide an education that is at least substantially equivalent to the education that is given to minors at public schools,” Siegel told VIN News. “We believe that there is enough information that this isn’t taking place and the city and state have a legal obligation to students.”
According to Siegel, yesterday’s letter was the first step of what may turn into a lengthy process.
“Step one is to give them an opportunity to listen to what is happening at some, not all, yeshivas,” explained Siegel. “If they do what they are supposed to do by law, it might satisfy our concerns. If they ignore this letter, as they have done to Mr. Moster in the past, we might give serious thought to litigating.”
Siegel’s letter references the New York State Education Department’s Guidelines for Determining Equivalency of Instruction in Nonpublic Schools, which specify that English language instruction is mandatory in grades one through twelve, with other required subjects including math, science, history, social studies and physical education.
The letter also references Education Law Section 3204 which states that non-public school instruction must take place in English, with English language textbooks, and that special programs must be provided for students whose English knowledge is limited. Siegel’s letter also notes that while girls’ education is typically on a higher level in the yeshiva system, it was unknown whether the secular education being provided at girls’ schools is compliant with state laws.
Siegel said that he hopes to hear back from officials shortly and that because of the upcoming holiday season, he would wait until sometime in January before escalating the matter further.
“I hope that this letter conveys the seriousness of the issue,” said Siegel. “We have cited federal cases to let them know the provision about certain minimum reasonable educational requirement has been upheld by the courts and we are cautiously optimistic that state and city officials will respond in the right way,”
Having grown up in Borough Park and having represented Orthodox Jews in several cases, Siegel feels confident that he understands the needs and sensitivities of the Jewish community. He acknowledged that there will be those who are not in favor of further enhancing the secular curriculum in yeshivas, particularly in the Chasidic community.
“People generally don’t like it when someone challenges the status quo and are often very resistant to change,” noted Siegel. “I will try to be extremely sensitive to the community’s issues but the bottom line is that if they are not complying with the law, someone has to do something to remedy that.”