Out of concern that some Orthodox schools are providing inadequate secular education, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) has attempted to issue stricter rules governing the curricula of nonpublic schools. Moshe Hauer and Michael A. Helfand do not object in principle to the state taking a more active role in supervising the education of ḥasidic children, but they find the most recent set of regulations concerning:
The government, of course, has a responsibility to ensure that all minors receive adequate education so that they can be full and productive members of democratic society. But in fulfilling this responsibility, the state needs to make sure that its rules do not overreach. It needs to take adequate account of the distinctive dual-curriculum model of Orthodox Jewish schools and respect the religious way of life that these schools perpetuate. New York’s proposed new rules fail in this regard, and would undermine the ability of some Orthodox Jewish communities to pass down their faith to the next generation.
The proposed list of required areas of study goes beyond general subjects to include courses in physical education and “kindred subjects,” patriotism and citizenship, highway safety and traffic regulation, and fire and arson prevention. While these are all valuable subjects, this list veers from the core requirements that ought to be legally necessary to allow a school to keep its doors open. And it sets a dangerous precedent: if Jewish schools are to embrace government oversight to ensure substantial equivalency, they need guarantees, built into the regulations themselves, that future bureaucrats will not simply continue adding to this list, using this proposed framework to incorporate even more peripheral pedagogical requirements into the substantial equivalency inquiry.
Some Jewish schools, as well as the people who teach and learn in them, don’t conform to the images of education in the minds of most 21st-century Americans. But our society should support these minority communities in their pursuit of their way of life. Majoritarian notions can all too easily, without a proper check, produce assessments that fail to acknowledge the benefits of an integrated educational program.