Rabbi M. Wiess
An update from the NY Board of Education yesterday brought ‘delight’ to the Jewish community as the decree that would have forced Jewish schools to have 7 hours of secular studies a day was reduced.
The fight between yeshivas and the State is not over, as the Agudah wrote in a statement, because there is still a requirement in place that will enforce 3.5 hours of daily secular studies, which would interfere and cripple regular Yeshivos curriculums.
If you’re anything like me and were scratching your head trying to figure out the two sides of the argument then a little bit of information may help. At the crux of the issue is the policy of government interfering with private schools and the lives of citizens. As the Agudah notes in their letter:
“We continue to insist that, beyond certain minimal basics, decisions about Yeshiva chinuch must be made by the parents of our children and their manhigim, not government bureaucrats.”
This is a thorny topic that has two valid components.
The government takes upon itself the responsibility of making sure children are given the tools to be capable, responsible and law abiding citizens. To that end, there are laws in place that force children to attend schools and receive an education that will hopefully allow them to pursue careers and be functioning, self sustaining adults.
If the government is to have laws that penalize those who don’t give their children education, the first step must be to define what exactly an education consists of.
Clearly, bringing children into a classroom to fiddle their thumbs for hours on end does not constitute an education.
To define ‘education’ the government must evaluate what branches of knowledge a child needs to master in order to be successful later in life. Upon creating those goals there are then two paths to go about ensuring schools are meeting them. One is to place objectives for grades that every child must be held accountable for by the end of the school year. For example, grade one students should be able to read, grade two should know the multiplication table, grade three should have a grasp of division, etc..
The other option is to evaluate how much time it would take for students to grasp these key subjects and tell schools they must teach these subjects for the requisite amount of time.
There are pros and cons to both sides and the State has made the decision to go with the latter though there is much to be said about the strengths of the former.
But this is only one side of the coin. And on the surface it seems logical, responsible and even generous for the government to take these steps to foster capable adults.
So what is the issue with it?
Let us put aside the fact that our community has lower rates of crime, violence, drugs issues etc.. This sidesteps the entire argument and is a moot point when we’re trying to determine what the government’s role is in raising our children. Instead let us focus on the impossibility of defining what constitutes an education and how doing so violates the freedom parents should have in educating their children.
Regardless of which path the State chooses in making sure children are up to par, the fact remains that State is imposing their idea of an education onto parents.
As the Agudah letter notes, even with the reduction of the hours, “the core problem with the guidance remains: it empowers the state to make curriculum decisions about which subjects must be taught in Yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs, how long they must be taught, and how many hours of the day must be taken away from Limudei Kodesh in order to accommodate these requirements. This is a grave threat to our mesorah.”
This is because a conflict arises when one considers a situation where the definition of a fully functional adult differs between the parent and the State, particularly in religious matters. Where the state sees several hours of daily secular studies as integral to nurturing a young child, an Orthodox Jewish parent believes a much stronger focus needs to made on Torah studies, with secular studies being supplementary.
The second issue of the government encroaching on school curriculum is that it opens the door for the government to decide on which subjects are important to be taught to children. Perspectives on abortion rights, evolution, the definition of marriage, biology, along with other ideas, may suddenly be made part of the curriculum while many Jewish parents feel that it is they who should impart their own ideas and perspectives on these matters to their children without outside influence.
To summarize, the government needs to find way to make sure children are being educated in a way that will allow them to be successful as adults. While they cannot impose any educational goals on schools without violating the individual’s rights to choose how to raise their children, there clearly must be be some guidelines in place. Otherwise a parent may decide their child should sit a home and twiddle their thumbs for an education and that is clearly unacceptable.
So how do we decide what’s more important between the right of the government to educate and the right of parents to choose their child’s education? This is the conundrum facing our askonim and the officials in Albany and it will be up to them to figure out how to strike a balance that is satisfactory to both the State and the parents.
(Footnote: A question that is constantly brought up is how can schools take money from the government for education but then tell the government to keep their noses out the school.
The answer is that the government isn’t giving money for education per se. The money given is strictly for busing and for attendance, i.e, for making sure the student who claim to be in the school are actually showing up. The fact that this money is earmarked for these schools is because they are, in fact, schools.
So the issue isn’t the money. If the money were to be withdrawn from the school it would mean the government decided this institution isn’t a school and any student in attendance needs to find a new school in order to be compliant with the law.
If there was a way to not take this money while still being considered a school legally the crisis would be merely a financial one, that would require more fundraisers not more askonus. So to be clear, this isn’t a financial issue it is a legal issue.)