As Was the Case 80 Years Ago, the Battle for Jewish Schools Centers on Checking the Power of Government

August 13, 2019 | Marvin Schick
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Last fall, New York State’s education commissioner released a series of guidelines for private elementary schools that would force most Jewish schools to abandon much of their religious curriculum. While a group of Jewish, Catholic, and independent private schools successfully challenged the guidelines in court, the state has now submitted the same requirements to the Board of Regents, hoping to have them made official regulations. Marvin Schick, the president of one of the schools involved in the litigation, notes a telling moment in the deliberations:

At a court hearing this past April 15, a lawyer for the New York State Education Department . . . claimed the rules were imposed for the “voiceless child who can be conscripted at his parents will” to attend a private school. Four days later, the court declared the guidelines “null and void.” But what the court could not nullify is the bureaucratic mindset that denigrates parental choice and characterizes as conscription the act of choosing to pay for a child’s private or religious education.

Schick looks back to a similar legal battle that began in 1939, when the New York State Board of Regents issued a set of regulations that seemed targeted specifically at Jewish religious schools. Then the state’s 26 yeshivas together submitted a brief to the board which, drawing on the language of a 1926 Supreme Court ruling, summed up the case potently: “The child is not the mere creature of the state, and its parents have the right and duty to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” Schick adds:

The argument presented [by the yeshivas] in July 1942 remains true today, as is attested by the professional success attained by yeshiva graduates and their regular admission to first-rate graduate and professional schools. The ḥasidic community has an entrepreneurial spirit that has created thousands of successful businesses in New York and tens of thousands of jobs for New Yorkers of all backgrounds.

As is true of all human endeavors, the yeshiva system has a measure of failure and room for improvement. None of this supports those who believe the worst about yeshivas. Critics of the yeshivas are likely more offended by our continued success attracting students seeking a religious framework for their lives than by educational failures. Consider the regents’ 1939 resolution. It was as concerned with a morning “session in a foreign language” as it was with there being “only an afternoon session in English.” Given the stellar academic performance of yeshivas, it is fair to ask whether the goal was as much to achieve a de-emphasis on Jewish studies as it was to achieve an increase in secular instruction.

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