The Battle Over Hasidic Schools Is a Broader Battle
New York State’s attack on yeshiva education is misguided, and it could lead one day to a Supreme Court ruling on religious liberty in education.
For almost 130 years, New York State has required private and non-public schools to offer a curriculum “substantially equivalent” to those offered in local public schools. That requirement has been loosely enforced, and the state education department issued new regulations in September 2022 that promised a more aggressive approach. But last week, New York Supreme Court Judge Christina Ryba partially invalidated those regulations. The ruling overturned neither the state’s compulsory-education law nor the substantial-equivalency law upon which the September regulations had been based. Rather, it invalidated the enforcement mechanism included in those regulations, which, Ryba found, would shut down schools out of step with the substantial-equivalency requirement. The compulsory-education law applies to parents, not schools, Ryba argued; accordingly, enforcement actions would have to be brought against parents instead of the schools themselves.
The ruling comes at a time of fierce debate over substantial equivalency at religious schools serving Hasidic Jewish New Yorkers. One side of the debate has reduced these schools to a set of caricatures—arguing that the education provided in these schools is of low quality, that their graduates are consigned to lives of poverty, and that parents are coerced by religious leaders to enroll their children in these schools. Reality is more complicated.
While performing research for a Manhattan Institute issue brief on the subject, I visited a yeshiva (religious school) for Hasidic boys in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. It offers no instruction in secular subjects, but the boys I observed all seemed to be fluent English speakers. I was told that they came from homes where English was freely spoken and that some parents may choose to augment the yeshiva’s instruction with tutors in English and math. Judge Ryba’s decision anticipated that a family could ensure substantial equivalency through a combination of religious school attendance, tutoring, and homeschooling.
While visiting, I observed classes in Talmudic studies, with the boys and teachers moving back and forth between spoken English and Hebrew while reading passages in both Hebrew and Aramaic. The astoundingly intense lessons were characterized by highly engaged students and teachers. In a small office, a young staffer showed me a spreadsheet he was working on that tracked every second-grader’s progress in Hebrew reading proficiency. New York State does not begin to test public school students in English reading comprehension until third grade, yet this Yeshiva expected every boy to be proficient Hebrew readers by the end of first grade. A six- or seven-year-old boy who could crack that language should, I thought, have no problem conquering English.
The updated substantial-equivalency regulations would have placed this school under review by the city and state education departments. Those regulations followed a seven-year campaign led by a small group of parents and alumni of Hasidic Jewish religious schools. The original complaint from Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED) focused on 35 specific Hasidic schools for boys in Brooklyn. The founder of YAFFED, Naftuli Moster, graduated from such a school and argued that its program left him ill prepared for college (he now holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree after taking remedial classes at the City University of New York). His initial complaint later expanded to include other schools; the New York Times has reported extensively on 100 of them. How many former students or current parents have lodged complaints about these schools remains unknown, but the reports have struck a chord in the city. All three New York dailies have editorialized against Hasidic schools.
Yet this reporting contains many dubious assumptions. No doubt some graduates of these schools are disappointed in the choice that their own parents made to send them there. No doubt, too, that some Hasidic adults are poor and rely on public assistance. Does this distinguish yeshivas from the public schools that produce many graduates who lack basic skills or end up on the public dole?
The argument that the Hasidic schools are awash in public money is similarly overstated. Take, for example, the New York Times report that the 100 schools under scrutiny “had received over one billion dollars in public money over the last four years.” That sounds like a lot; it isn’t. This funding is made available for all students across the state who meet certain criteria in public or private schools. Its sources include federal aid for compensatory education, federally subsidized meals for students from low-income families, and state funding for transportation to and from school. It includes two funding streams unrelated to elementary and secondary education—city vouchers for early childhood care and federal financial aid to post-secondary students enrolled in rabbinical schools that some of these yeshivas house. And the amounts cited—$375 million in one year and $1 billion over four years—look smaller in perspective. This year, the city education department’s budget exceeds $36 billion. At least 16 percent of that, amounting to more than $6 billion annually, flows to privately operated charter schools; private schools, including religious schools; private early childhood programs, including those based in churches; and private special-education schools and providers. Hasidic schools specifically, and religious schools more broadly, receive a sliver of the money that the city delivers to private service providers.
Credible reports have emerged of financial impropriety in some Hasidic schools. There is no excuse for this; those who misuse public money deserve to face the consequences. But such problems are neither unique to Hasidic schools nor relevant to the substantial-equivalency debate, and pretending that they are serves to inflame generalized animus against these schools and the communities they serve.
Hasidic communities contain their share of people receiving public assistance, particularly food assistance. This, too, is not unique to Hasidim. In 2021, almost 14 percent of the population in New York State lived under the poverty line; in 2018–19, over 2.7 million New Yorkers, or 13.6 percent of the population, received federal nutrition assistance. At the same time, Jewish schools, including non-Hasidic ones, represented only 5.5 percent of student enrollment in the state. If policymakers want to cure dependence by improving schools, it does not appear that Hasidic schools are the place to start.
Missing from the debate is an appreciation of the benefits that Hasidic schools produce for their own members. Sociologists use the term “bonding social capital” to refer to the beneficial bonds that form in closed communities. These bonds provide both economic and social benefits. Hasidic communities are not devoid of wealth: individual graduates of their schools have gone on to be successful business owners and leaders. A walk through Hasidic neighborhoods reveals a tremendous amount of new and recently built housing. The rigorous lifestyle of the Hasidim creates some jobs, as many goods may only be handled by those following the rules, and many services can be provided only by members of the community. As economists Abby M. McCloskey and Aparna Mathur have recently noted, we are “living through the greatest collapse of social capital in American history.” Yes, the Hasidim are different, and their schools reflect that. But their high rates of family stability and low rates of crime suggest that some of these differences are virtuous.
The battle has high stakes. In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in Pierce v. Society of Sisters the right of parents to comply with Oregon’s compulsory-education law by sending their children to religious (Catholic) schools. In 1972, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Court exempted the Amish from the requirement of continuing compulsory education through high school, specifically noting the uniqueness of this self-supporting agrarian community. The Hasidim of today are unique, too. Their schools are central to their faith, allowing them to pass on the soul of their culture from one generation to the next. That faith sustained them over long stretches of persecution, and they hold it dear today—prioritizing religious liberty to the extent of retreating from the dominant culture.
New York policymakers put themselves in a difficult spot with the September regulations. They stand on even shakier terrain after the recent court ruling. Notwithstanding the common complaint that religious leaders are pressuring parents into these choices, public officials seem to want to replace parental judgement with that of the state at a time when parents and advocates are working to reestablish some forms of parental control over public education. Now, a judge observes that parents could be subjected to fines or imprisonment if they do not enroll their children in “substantially equivalent” schools. The state should tread lightly, seeking redress where public funds have been misused and pursuing marginal changes that might improve the quality of secular instruction while maintaining the schools’ unique culture. It should not try to monitor and penalize thousands of families, as the recent court ruling would seem to countenance.
Marginal changes may not satisfy the schools’ critics. But large-scale educational change, imposed from above, rarely works. Rather than fighting a large and growing number of parents who prize these schools, the state legislature could pursue a more participatory approach by following the lead of other states and offering some version of public financing in the form of educational savings accounts or tax credits. These programs allow parents to allocate public funds to education-service providers, including religious schools and tutors or other ancillary service providers. By alleviating the financial burden, the state might help parents find ways to have their children learn English and math while maintaining the religious school instruction they value.
Meantime, these schools could form the basis for a constitutional test for the concept of substantial equivalency itself. If a school offers an elevated level of instruction in a centuries-old tradition and produces graduates with elevated critical-thinking skills involving the resolution of competing texts and analyses, but fails to check all the boxes of what passes for competency, should it be allowed? Hasidic schools could one day present the Supreme Court with an opportunity to enshrine religious liberty and pluralism more fully in educational policy.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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