In a recent ruling in the ongoing dispute between the New York State Education Department (NYSED) and several ḥasidic schools, a state court decided in favor of the latter. NYSED claims that the schools in question, because of their strong emphasis on religious over secular education, do not fulfill the state’s legal requirement that private educational institutions provide a curriculum “substantially equivalent” to that offered by public ones. On these grounds, it seeks to close the schools down. The schools’ lawyers argue that such a move would violate the religious freedom of both parents and children. Michael A. Helfand explains Judge Christina Ryba’s verdict and its implications:
According to Judge Ryba, the constitutional challenges were premature: the new regulations [issued by NYSED] did not add substantive educational requirements; they only outlined a process for reviewing schools’ compliance with preexisting educational requirements. As a result, any legal challenge arguing that the regulations imposed educational requirements that trespass on the rights of schools and parents must fail—at least for now—because the regulations did not, in fact, impose any new substantive requirements.
But while the court sidestepped the constitutional claims, it still interpreted existing New York law as vindicating a parallel principle of parental authority. Thus the court struck down perhaps the most significant elements of the regulations: the NYSED’s authority to close a school for failing to provide a substantially equivalent education. According to the court, New York’s education law makes clear why: “the statutory scheme places the burden for ensuring a child’s education squarely on the parent, not the school.” This implication, argued the court, is clear from various provisions of New York’s education laws—Education Law 3212, for example, which obligates those in a “parental relation” with a child to ensure that the child is receiving the required education. . . . Nowhere, however, does New York law authorize the imposition of penalties on a nonpublic school.
By locating the substantial-equivalence obligation with parents, the court interpreted New York law to require the state to consider alternative ways in which parents might meet this standard. Thus, if a nonpublic school is not providing a “substantially equivalent” education, “the parents should be given a reasonable opportunity to prove that the substantial equivalency requirements for their children’s education are satisfied by instruction provided through a combination of sources.”