Adams praises yeshivas as City Hall fights to conceal school assessments

A woman in a black shirt and long black skirt says goodbye to a young child in a red jacket boarding a yellow school bus.
Yeshiva buses pick up students in Brooklyn’s South Williamsburg, Sept. 25, 2020. (Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY)

This story was originally published on May 15 by THE CITY.

The Adams administration is actively touting the education provided by the city’s yeshivas — at the same time as it is waging a legal battle to keep its own evaluations of 26 of the Hasidic schools under wraps.

At a fundraising dinner last week hosted by the yeshiva advocacy group The Orthodox Union, Mayor Eric Adams told the audience “we need to be duplicating what you are achieving.”

Adams went on to urge a close look at yeshiva education, not for some of their gaps in teaching but as models for how to educate “65% of Black and Brown children [who] never reach proficiency in the public-school system.”

“Instead of us focusing on how do we duplicate the success of improving our children, we attack the yeshivas that are providing a quality education that is embracing our children,” Adams said. “We’re asking, ‘What are you doing in your schools?’ We need to ask, ‘What are we doing wrong in our schools?’ and learn what you are doing in the yeshivas to improve education.” 

The mayor’s continued praise of the schools comes after The New York Times published a series of stories last year that found significant failings in the education provided at some of the most religious yeshivas — especially those serving boys. 

The paper reported that many of the yeshivas offer math and reading just four times per week, often in 90-minute sessions, and only through age 12 for boys.

The Times also reported that when the Central United Talmudical Academy in Brooklyn had more than 1,000 of its students take standardized state tests in math and reading in 2019 — something yeshivas are not required to do — every single one of them failed.

Just days after Adams’s speech, his administration signaled that it would challenge a court ruling that would have required the city Department of Education to release some of its own evaluations of yeshivas.

On April 28, a Manhattan Supreme Court Judge sided with THE CITY in its years-long battle to obtain assessments made by the DOE of the quality of instruction at 26 yeshivas that advocates have long alleged were failing to provide kids with a basic education.

The ruling by Justice Eric Schumacher mandated that the DOE provide redacted versions of those assessments by the week of May 15 and the full assessments by July 30. 

The assessments contain snapshots of the instruction observed at each school by DOE officials at what is now the midpoint of a nearly eight-year probe. Both the Bill de Blasio and Adams administrations have consistently fought efforts to make those assessments public. A student in first grade at one of the schools when the probe launched in 2015 would now be in ninth grade. 

Beatrice Weber, executive director of the advocacy group Young Adults for a Fair Education (Yaffed) — which filed the complaint that launched the DOE’s probe — said she found Adams’s blanket praise of yeshivas “upsetting.”

“There are yeshivas that are really good, some of them are top notch. But not the ones that are under investigation and not the ones that need our attention,” Weber told THE CITY. “So continuing to pretend this is not a problem is just ridiculous.”

In an earlier response to the New York Times series, Adams — who as Brooklyn Borough President for eight years and as state Senator before that enjoyed a close relationship with the Hasidic community — said he was “not concerned” about its revelations.

Instead, he said he was focusing on the DOE’s “independent” investigation, which the State Education Department earlier this year mandated be wrapped up by June 30 because it had dragged on for so long. 

At Wednesday’s dinner, Adams concluded his passionate, nearly eight-minute speech by thanking the crowd for its political support when he successfully ran for City Hall in 2021. 

“You were there for me when I ran for mayor,” Adams told the crowd. “I’m going to be there for you as your mayor.”

A life of struggles

The complaint that sparked the DOE’s investigation was filed in July 2015 by Yaffed, which represents graduates of certain Hasidic yeshivas who said the schools failed to teach them the basics in English, math and other core subjects.

The lack of preparation set them up for a life of struggles and hardships, many of the advocates have said.

While the complaint targeted 39 schools, the DOE narrowed its focus to 28 that officials spent the next several years attempting to visit.

In August 2018, after complaints that the DOE was slow-walking the probe, then NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza wrote to state officials to say that after more than three years of investigation, the DOE had failed to gain access to 15 yeshivas because the schools had refused entry. 

A group that formed to advocate for the yeshivas, Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools (PEARLS), denied the obstruction claims at the time.

In December 2019, Carranza revealed in a subsequent letter to the State Education Department that the DOE had finally managed to visit all 28 schools. 

He wrote that the DOE was providing each of the yeshivas with “the information, observations, and findings specific to each school” and a determination of how close they were to meeting the state bar of providing an education “substantially equivalent” to that provided at public schools. 

Carranza said 11 of the schools had met or were close to meeting the required mark, while he characterized 12 as “developing” and five as “underdeveloped.”

At the five underdeveloped schools, among other issues, DOE reviewers found “no evidence that English is consistently used as a language of instruction,” Carranza wrote.

Within days of Carranza’s letter, the city Department of Investigation released the results of a probe that found that at least part of the delay in the DOE’s inquiry into the yeshivas was politically motivated.

The DOI revealed that City Hall officials under then-Mayor Bill de Blasio had agreed in the summer of 2017 to delay the release of an interim report on the status of the yeshiva inquiry in exchange for having mayoral control of schools extended by the state legislature in Albany.

The report didn’t name which lawmakers had sought the delay, and didn’t come to a conclusion about whether de Blasio himself had been involved in what DOI characterized as “horse-trading.”

A month later, in January 2020, THE CITY filed a public disclosure law request with the Department of Education seeking copies of the 28 letters.

At the end of that year, the DOE provided just two — for schools deemed to have met the substantial equivalency bar — but refused to provide the other 26, citing the ongoing investigation.

In April 2021, attorneys with the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic filed a lawsuit on behalf of THE CITY asking the courts to get involved.

Legal battle

In documents submitted in the case and in oral arguments, city government attorneys have said that providing the letters sent to each of the yeshivas would interfere with the ongoing investigation and could prompt the schools to stop cooperating with in-person visits. 

They said the DOE was concluding the investigative portion of the probe by June 30, as required by the State Education Department, but made no commitment to make the letters public after that date.

They also said that providing what they refer to as an “initial assessment” to the public before the investigation concludes could potentially derail any future investigations of private schools.

“This is a collaborative process where the schools and the DOE have to meet and work together. Right now that’s happening,” city government attorney Philip Frank argued last month in court. “Releasing the letters right now could hinder that process from happening.” 

But Judge Schumacher responded that the potential “chilling effect” of releasing the letters described by the DOE was “minimal, if not existent,” because any schools that fail to cooperate with the probe would be deemed to not meet substantial equivalency.

“Respondent’s argument boils down to an assumption that yeshiva schools would in essence, to turn a phrase, cut off their nose to spite their face,” Schumacher said as part of his decision on April 28. “[That] instead of cooperating with respondent in hopes of a favorable determination, the school would rather be found not to be in compliance with the legal requirement of providing a substantially equivalent education to their students.”

He ruled the same day that, out of an abundance of caution, the DOE should provide the letters with the names of the schools redacted within several weeks, and furnish unredacted versions by July 30.

On May 12, the city government filed its notice of intent to appeal.

The Mayor’s Office and a representative for the advocacy group PEARLS didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Evolving state standards

Amid a heated debate in recent years about the role of government in regulating what should be taught in private and particularly religious schools, the State Education Department has attempted multiple times to revise the educational criteria that’s required — most recently last year. 

In September 2022, state officials passed standards that better detail the process by which city governments and the State Education Department can ensure oversight of quality and content of instruction at non-public schools.

The regulations put most of the onus on local governments for determining whether a school meets the substantially equivalent mark, and allowed for the pulling of public funding from private schools that can’t prove they’re teaching the essentials.

They also identified a number of pathways that non-public schools can use to demonstrate the substantial equivalency mark, such as accreditation by an outside entity, while allowing for investigations by local districts of schools that aren’t able to provide the required proof.

However, the fight to define the government’s oversight role is ongoing.

In response to the new standards, PEARLS and other groups filed a lawsuit saying the State Education Department overstepped its powers. 

In March, a state court sided with the yeshiva groups on two pivotal issues — ruling that the State Education Department can’t require parents to pull their kids from schools that aren’t meeting the substantially equivalent designation, and can’t require those schools to close.

The State Education Department has since filed an appeal. 

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