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An urgent task for the next chancellor: focus on yeshivas


New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will be retiring soon, as planned before Miami Superintendent Alberto Carvalho accepted the job to replace her, then reversed himself out of the blue.

While we recover from the shock, it’s a healthy time to assess Fariña’s legacy and hope her replacement, whoever he or she is, learns from what she did right and wrong.

The current chancellor is to be commended for such initiatives as slowing school closures, creating pre-K and expanding it now to 3-year-olds, and successfully negotiating a new teachers’ contract.

Fariña has, however, failed in one important aspect. She has done nothing in her four-year tenure to enforce the law against the dozens of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish yeshivas in New York that do not provide their male students with anything close to the minimum level of secular education required of all city schools — both public and private.

It is not as though the chancellor has been unaware of the problem. Attorney Norman Siegel, representing a group I founded called Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), outlined the problem in a letter to the chancellor in December 2014. The following July, a letter to the chancellor signed by some 52 yeshiva graduates and parents of current students identified 39 such yeshivas.

The city’s Department of Education did announce shortly thereafter that it was launching an investigation and would issue a report. But here we are almost three years later, and no report has been issued — despite a series of promises starting as early as April 2016 that there would be “some decisions coming shortly” or that a report would be issued “soon.”

From my perspective as a young man who was “educated” in a yeshiva, no report is really needed. This state of affairs has been an open secret for decades; the only ones asserting that there is no problem are the yeshivas themselves.

They say they’re making progress. They insist groups like ours paint with too broad a brush.

But the fact remains that thousands of young people are being denied the basic secular education that is their birthright as Americans and New Yorkers.

In a recent interview with New York’s CBS Channel 2, Fariña attempted to shift responsibility for this problem to New York State. The fact — a fact that whoever replaces her must understand before they take on this powerful job — is that the law puts the responsibility for enforcing educational standards squarely on the shoulders of the local school district.

For his part, Mayor de Blasio has given little but lip service to this problem. In July 2015, a mayoral spokesman, Wiley Norvell, asserted in an email to The Jewish Week that the city had “zero tolerance for the kind of educational failure alleged.” To this point in time, however, the de Blasio administration has evinced quite the opposite.

One would think that the schools chancellor would be conspicuously zealous in addressing a situation in which tens of thousands of youngsters in New York City are given only six hours a week of secular studies — a little bit of English language skills and a little bit of arithmetic.

And after the age of 13, no secular education whatsoever. Few of these students are able to pass the Regents Examinations or obtain a state high school diploma. Only a few I encounter, and I encounter many, have ever even heard the words “algebra,” “atom” or “molecule.”

What was really behind all the foot-dragging? Fariña herself let the cat out of the bag at a breakfast meeting in early 2017 in which I stood up to ask the chancellor why the long-promised report had not been issued. Before answering me with a dismissive “This is a very complicated issue,” the chancellor had turned to the moderator and given up the real reason that the report had not been issued, not realizing that her whispered comment would be picked up by her microphone.

“It’s politics,” she said.

I guess it is naive to think that the educational welfare of New York’s children should not be held hostage to politics.

On this front, Fariña has failed. Our next chancellor, whoever that is, must do better.

Moster is founder of YAFFED.