By Adrienne Sanders
September 18, 2015
East Ramapo public school leaders are shrugging off a long-established law requiring private schools to provide an education equal to that of public schools in the same region, a Journal News investigation has found.
An untold number of private religious schools under the district's jurisdiction are failing to offer sufficient secular studies, according to parents, former students and education officials. Yeshivas run by insular Hasidic Jewish sects have raised the most concern.
"We don't track the specifics of their programs," admitted East Ramapo schools Superintendent Joel Klein, referring to the 80 yeshivas in his district. "We don't have the manpower to do that."
While eschewing a 1928 state law requiring that the quality of private school education is "substantially equivalent" to that of public schools, district administrators have closely adhered to laws ensuring that the yeshivas receive the public funds to which they are entitled.
Millions of public tax dollars fuel the district, which sits 35 miles north of New York City in Rockland County. It is home to 8,500 public school students. Some 24,000 students attend private schools — a number expected to nearly double within 10 years, according to a 2014 report by Hank Greenberg, a state monitor appointed to assess the district last year.
Considerable controversy has surrounded the distribution of the district's $218 million budget, which is made up of roughly $148 million in local taxes, $63 million in state aid and $6 million from other sources. The district also receives at least $35 million more in federal grants. More than $100 million in private school tuition also flows into the district.
Klein said he does not know the precise breakdown of how much funding goes to the private schools and that it would take extraordinary measures to determine that.
The state demonstrated its concern about the distribution of district funds in August when it appointed its second monitoring team in two years, tapping Cornell Professor John Sipple to review East Ramapo's budget and finances.
Concern over secular studies has reached such a critical stage that a growing number of Hasidim themselves are beginning to speak publicly about it, an extremely rare act that carries with it the risk of expulsion from the community and retaliation from religious leaders. This summer, a few discontented Hasidic parents from East Ramapo met with Laura Barbieri of the New York City-based nonprofit law firm Advocates for Justice to discuss their options for beefing up secular studies.The families decided not to wage a public fight for now because they feared retribution, Barbieri said.
"People are afraid to speak out for fear of being shunned," said Shulem Deen, a former yeshiva student from New Square who recently published a memoir about his life there with the Skverer sect. "The highest social currency within the Hasidic world is conformity, and anyone who steps out of bounds risks losing friends, family, social and economic connections."
Yoel Falkowitz, a Spring Valley resident and member of the Satmar Hasidic sect, was among those who met with Barbieri, who represents East Ramapo public school parents on other matters. Falkowitz acknowledged the risks involved with going public, but said he chose to because he desperately wants a better education for his children.
"I've spoken to a large number of people and everybody is concerned about getting a better education, but they have no voice," said Falkowitz, speaking exclusively with The Journal News.
Falkowitz's sons have trouble understanding English street signs. The three yeshiva students, ages 8, 10 and 11, were born in this country but, as their father puts it, "Their (secular) education is deficient in every area. There is no art, history, music, science, geography. Nothing exists."
What his children are learning, he said, is "a far cry from the minimum requirement by law."
Public school parents in East Ramapo have been demanding a better education for their children for years, capturing the attention of assorted activists, state administrators and the national media. That some private school parents are now claiming a similar problem adds a new facet.
Several Hasidic yeshivas and the Yeshiva Association of Rockland County did not return calls for comment.
Secular education in yeshivas
Yeshivas are non-profit religious institutions dedicated to the study of Jewish texts, particularly the Torah and Talmud. Some are boarding schools, most are day schools.
Educational standards vary tremendously among them. Modern Orthodox yeshivas such ASHAR in New City offer a rigorous secular curriculum. But others, mostly yeshivas in more isolated Hasidic enclaves such as New Square, teach exclusively in Yiddish and often fail to prepare students to fend for themselves or find employment in the world outside their villages, said Deen, whose children still attend yeshivas in New Square. And, sources say, as the Hasidic communities' numbers have grown, they've become more insular and secular studies have worsened.
Former yeshiva students, teachers and families have told The Journal News that some Hasidic schools in East Ramapo do not teach the English alphabet until the children are 7 or 8. At that point, English and math coursework is squeezed into 90 minutes, perhaps four times a week at the end of the day. Generally, around the age of 13, boys begin to focus exclusively on religious texts. Girls, who do not study the Talmud, receive better secular educations.
"My sons are in ninth and twelfth grade now and they receive no secular studies at all," Deen said.
Still, despite tuition costs of $3,000 to $5,000 per child in the more modest Hasdic yeshivas, virtually no one in the community considers sending their children to public schools. Non-religious education is considered taboo.
Ian Blake Newhem, a Rockland Community College English professor who has taught in two Monsey yeshivas, offered his take on the secular education concern.
"There is a shocking lack of content necessary for understanding of the world," he said. "Students have never heard of the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, how many states are in the country. They've never heard of Martin Luther King."
Critics of the system say yeshivas' deficiencies relegate many to lives of poverty and public assistance. Hasidic young men, who often marry in their late teens, realize the gaps in their education just as they face the pressures of supporting their families, said Deen, whose pursuit of a more secular life eventually led to his expulsion from New Square's Hasidic fold.
"I know many, many adult Hasidic men who are very angry. They have two, three, four children. They can't read, they can't write," he said. "Many of them were struggling because they had no idea how to type up a basic email without a million spelling mistakes."
A 2011 report by the UJA-Federation of New York revealed that 45 percent of Hasidic households in the New York metro region were living in poverty. Sixty-four percent of households with six or more people were considered impoverished.
Though most households had at least one person working outside the home, the study said, breadwinners "are seriously constrained by low levels of secular education."
To support their broods, "A lot of boys, men, go out scrambling to find a job, get vocational skills," said Naftuli Moster, a former yeshiva student advocating for better secular studies. He said that many communities develop complex systems to rely on government support. Deen concurred. Many of his friends had to rely on their wives' English proficiency to fill out applications for public assistance, he said.
The preservation of tradition, including speaking Yiddish, is a foundation of Hasidic life, said Yeshiva University education Professor Moshe Krakowski. These ultra-Orthodox Jews trace their ancestry to 18th century Eastern Europe. After near-total destruction in the Holocaust, Hasidim began immigrating to the United States in large numbers. Following the edicts of a few powerful religious leaders called rebbes, they dedicated themselves to recreating the world they had lost.
With a few exceptions such as teaching evolution, Hasidim are "not really opposed to secular knowledge per se," said Krakowski, but rather disdain "secular values and culture."
Lack of enforcement
The state, meanwhile, is caught in a dilemma. While it vows to have districts adequately educate their students, the law supporting this standard has been dormant for almost 90 years.
"We want to make sure every child is educated to a standard that allows them to be self-sufficient," said state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch.
To that end, the state Education Department holds district superintendents responsible for ensuring that the quality of private schools' education is similar to that of public schools in the same region. It does not, however, require any tests to prove it.
Administrators across the state admit to ignoring or having no knowledge of this law.
"I have no authority of law to enforce quality control. Quite the opposite. I have very little say in what goes on," said Harrison schools Superintendent Louis Wool of the three private schools in his district. Wool is the highest paid educator in the Hudson Valley, according to the Empire Center for Public Policy.
Daniel Shanahan, East Ramapo's director of funded programs, said he monitors federal grants that go to private schools and tracks new yeshivas as they open. The schools provide him with information "that is easy for them to send," such as the numbers of students per grade, he said.
"Seldom do they send us anything that is a robust curriculum," he said, noting that he has visited about a quarter of the district's private schools.
Shanahan defended the yeshivas' right as private schools to teach material they deem appropriate.
"We can't be the public school bully," he said.
But the state Education Department says district administrators are, indeed, responsible for upholding state education law 3204, however toothless it may be.
"A nonpublic school that is determined not to be providing substantially equivalent instruction is operating illegally," said Jeanne Beattie, a spokeswoman for the Education Department. Still, she said her department is "unaware of any penalties exacted against districts or superintendents for failure to determine substantial equivalence."
Historically, the government didn't concern itself much with private schools, whose education was assumed to be at least on par with public schools since attendees paid tuition.
District background and funding
Since 2005, the ultra-Orthodox community in East Ramapo has elected a school board dominated by Hasidic and other Orthodox men who send their children to private schools, mostly yeshivas.
Like all districts in the state, East Ramapo is legally obliged to provide services such as transportation, textbooks and special education to private schools.Critics have maintained, though, that the school board diverts resources to yeshivas beyond mandates and at the expense of public schools. Klein, the superintendent, said it is nearly impossible to tease out how much is spent on private schools. He gave as an example that one special education teacher might spend half her day in a yeshiva and half in a public school.
Whatever the exact breakdown, the spending has been staggering. As the Orthodox population ballooned, spending on transportation alone grew to $30 million this year — up from $22 million in 2009.
Klein said thorough oversight of the yeshivas is prohibitively expensive.
"If we were to do more, that's money that would come out of public school programs," he said.
There is little left to cut.
East Ramapo's public schools' programs and staffing have already been slashed. Between 2009 and 2012, the board cut 400 positions, including teachers, guidance counselors and nurses. Art, music and other electives and full-day kindergarten were also sacrificed.
The Lakewood, New Jersey, school district has had fiscal and demographic circumstances similar to those in East Ramapo. The New Jersey Department of Education appointed a state fiscal monitor with authority to override decisions of the local school board.
Falkowitz and other concerned parents are part of a broader movement gaining momentum in New York City, where a high-profile letter-writing campaign this summer spurred the New York City Education Department to investigate more than three dozen Brooklyn yeshivas to make sure they are up to the most basic educational standards.
Moster, founder of the non-profit YAFFED (Young Adults for Fair Education), who is spearheading the movement, said Rockland County residents were interested in adding their yeshivas to the complaint but the group decided it would be more effective to focus on the city first.
So far, the city's investigation consists of requests for lesson plans and other materials.
Falkowitz said the approach won't work.
"Yeshivas are not going to self-report and the people won't report," he said.
East Ramapo families may have more hope for results. Monica George-Fields, one of three state-backed monitors appointed in August to oversee the district, told The Journal News she plans to visit and observe many yeshivas in the district.
Lead monitor Dennis Walcott confirmed this oversight, noting, "A trained educator can walk into any building and get a sense of how well a school is or is not doing."
Everyone associated with the East Ramapo district is fully cooperating with the monitors, said district spokesman Darren Dopp.
"No district in the state has been probed more than East Ramapo in the last five years," he said.