A group of alumni of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas who have long claimed the schools are not meeting minimum education requirements now allege that a powerful state senator has successfully—and unconstitutionally—forced the state to ease its oversight of the religious institutions.
Filed Monday by Young Advocates For A Fair Education [Yaffed], the suit takes aim at the recently-passed Felder Amendment, which will exempt a highly specific set of schools from state guidelines that require private schools to offer a "substantially equivalent" curriculum to their public counterparts. The exemption—for nonprofit institutions offering long school days and bilingual programs—would allow the religious institutions to continue spurning secular instruction in favor of an education almost exclusively limited to Judaic studies, the complaint alleges.
"It's an attempt to shield the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas from the law, because only they meet these requirements," Naftuli Moster, the founder of Yaffed, told Gothamist. "At this point, there are tens of thousand of children here in New York who are literally being denied a basic education the likes of which we just don't see in modern, developed countries."
A report released last year by the group claims that the lack of secular education leaves "young men lack[ing] the requisite skills to obtain employment with a decent income to support themselves and their (often large) families." Girls, who are prohibited from becoming rabbis or studying the Talmud, actually receive better educations, Moster noted.
The suit names the state education commissioner and the chancellor of the State Board of Regents as defendants, as well as Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed the amendment into law in April of this year.
According to the complaint, the amendment was the brain child of ultra-Orthodox Jewish community leaders opposed to educational oversight in the Satmar community of Kiryas Joel, New York. With the help of state Senator Simcha Felder, those leaders were able to execute "a deliberately timed plan to hijack the negotiations for the New York state budget," the suit alleges, "to inoculate the ultra-Orthodox Jewish non-public schools from scrutiny."
While technically a Democrat, Felder caucuses with Republicans, providing them with a one-vote margin in the 63-member body. In exchange, the GOP leadership has been known to shower the Borough Park representative with money and political support, even when he's threatening to derail a $168 billion budget.
While the laws governing New York's yeshivas are passed in Albany, enforcement of those laws falls to local districts. After Yaffed filed specific complaints in 2015, the city's Department of Education said they were investigating the yeshivas, though they were later accused of stalling the investigation for "political reasons." In the midst of that probe, Mayor Bill de Blasio effusively praised Crown Heights yeshiva Oholei Torah, which has reportedly left students without basic reading and writing skills.
But three years into the DOE's investigation, and after they'd blown past several deadlines, the state education department was finally set to roll out new guidelines that, according to Mosher, could bring yeshivas under compliance with New York's laws. "The state was finally going to get its act together and start revising how the law is enforced, and the yeshivas got nervous, and that's why they got Simcha Felder to change the law," says Moster.
A spokesperson for the DOE told Gothamist that "New York City students must get a high-quality education," and added that they intend to deliver a report soon. The agency has visited 15 of 30 schools for which they've received complaints, the spokesperson added.
Attempts to reach Felder were not successful.