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New York's ultra-Orthodox Schools: A Story of Big Money, Lobbyists and Political Power

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An unusual alliance, and its ultimate breakdown, lie behind last week's passage of long-delayed New York State regulations to force ultra-Orthodox yeshivas to uphold secular instruction requirements. But political jockeying sold out students and legal principles in the past, and may render also this latest reform attempt meaningless.

Since the 1800s, state law has required all New York public and private schools to provide "substantially equivalent" secular instruction. Throughout the 20th century the state education department carried out little or no enforcement on private schools, since its Office of Religious and Independent Schools mostly promoted the interests of the sector it oversaw and, even if outsiders knew about the statute, compliance was assumed.

After all, what else do schools do? Up until the mid-20th century, most private school students attended secular independent and Catholic institutions that taught traditional academic subjects, so the issue received scant attention. If anyone needed reassurance, lobbyists for the New York State Association of Independent Schools and the New York State Catholic Conference were able to restore complacency.

New York’s ultra-Orthodox yeshivas began to proliferate in the post-war years and, as recently recounted by Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer, over time secular instruction in those schools receded as Torah and Talmud study were prioritized. In male secondary schools in particular, religious studies sometimes entirely displaced secular subjects, including English.

To protect this instructional vision while maximizing public funding, Agudath Israel of America joined NYSAIS and the Catholic Conference to become the state's third big educational lobbying powerhouse.

In 2012, this arrangement was challenged by Young Advocates for Fair Education, a group of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva graduates led by Naftuli Moster, who chafed at the lack of secular education they had received. Using the........

© Haaretz

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