By Avi Schick
During my quarter-century practicing law, I have defended a broad range of clients and activities: the state’s anti-smoking laws from cigarette companies, the Working Families Party from an improperly appointed special prosecutor, and numerous insurers, banks, and developers.
None of my clients has been as misunderstood and negatively stereotyped as the Hasidic schools and community I now represent.
For the past three years, they have been forced to endure a relentless campaign against their schools and way of life. The onslaught was triggered by a letter complaining about the education at Brooklyn yeshivas by a group called Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED) that was short on specifics but alleged that these schools did not teach in “English from English language textbooks,” and was followed by a public relations campaign meant to harden public opinion against an insular community with a unique culture.
Last week, the city’s Department of Education sent a letter to the state Education Department that was meant to summarize its findings.
Read fairly, the DOE letter confirms that the allegations against the yeshivas are false, and that yeshiva students receive an enriching education in a quality learning environment.
The letter also discussed a unified effort that created a “new, more rigorous secular studies curriculum” that has been widely adopted in Hasidic schools. This curriculum is embodied in textbooks published by Houghton Mifflin and Sadlier Oxford, and has been accompanied by professional development and teacher training to ensure effective implementation.
The DOE has already visited 15 of the 23 elementary schools listed in YAFFED’s complaint, educating more than 13,000 students, and observed serious teaching and learning in each of those schools. The remaining elementary schools, which enroll about 3,000 students, will be visited this fall.
There was one false note in the DOE letter, which was the suggestion that it was denied access to the remaining schools. As the lawyer for all the schools — those visited to date and those to be visited in the coming months — I can state unequivocally that access was not and will not be denied.
For years, news reports cited that YAFFED’s complaint listed 39 yeshivas; the DOE letter reveals that there are only 29. YAFFED alleged that its signatories were current or former parents, students or teachers at all the yeshivas they listed; the DOE letter reveals that they had information about only 11 of the schools. Several of the “schools” listed do not even exist.
These may seem like trivial details, but they remind us how easily misinformation can be mistaken for truth when those being targeted are unpopular.
There is also a misconception that yeshivas are government funded. They are not. Qualifying students receive taxpayer-funded transportation, textbooks and lunches, but yeshivas do not receive financial support for teachers, educational activities, buildings or maintenance.
Ironically — or hypocritically — those who most loudly demand government intervention in yeshiva curriculum are also the quickest to oppose any state aid to yeshivas as an impermissible and excessive entanglement between church and state.
The U.S. Supreme Court has guaranteed “the liberty of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children,” and New York’s highest court has affirmed their constitutional right to choose private schools for their children.
Hasidic parents care about their children, and Hasidic schools care for their students. They respect the DOE and will continue to work with them in the spirit of collaboration that has long characterized their relationship. All they ask is that their rights be respected as well.
Schick is a partner at Troutman Sanders and a former New York State deputy attorney general. This article was first published in the NY Daily News and is published here with permission of the author.