FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 23, 2018
YAFFED Files Federal Lawsuit Against New York Governor, NYS Education Commissioner, Board of Regents Chancellor Alleging Unconstitutional “Felder Amendment” Denies Yeshiva Students Right to Basic Education
Hundreds of Millions of Taxpayer Dollars Support Schools that “Graduate” Students with Few Skills; Poverty Rates and Public Assistance Sky High
(New York, NY) – Today, Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), a nonprofit committed to improving educational curricula within ultra-Orthodox schools, filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, and N.Y. Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa. YAFFED is represented by lawyers from the law firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP as pro-bono counsel.
The suit alleges that on April 12, 2018, when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a budget that included an amendment to New York Education Law, Section 3204, section 2, known as the “Felder Amendment”, New York created a carve-out to the statutory requirement of substantial equivalent instruction in non-public schools that applies to and is intended to benefit only certain ultra-Orthodox non-public schools. In doing so, New York violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The amendment to Section 3204 is the brainchild of State Senator Simcha Felder and ultra-Orthodox community leaders who oppose state oversight of yeshivas. Senator Felder attracted much attention in late March when he single-handedly held the 2018 state budget negotiations hostage, demanding the Education Law be changed to inoculate ultra-Orthodox Jewish non-public schools from oversight before agreeing to pass the budget.
"All across America, special interest groups and individuals seek to chip away at a child’s access and right to a comprehensive education. Nowhere have they been more successful than right here in New York, where many yeshivas have gotten away with providing no secular education at all, or at best a very limited one, to tens of thousands of children. This sub-standard secular education was codified into law with Senator Felder’s amendment." said Naftuli Moster, YAFFED‘s Founder and Executive Director.
As of June 2018, there were 273 Orthodox yeshivas registered with the state; 211 of these yeshivas are located in Kings County. In 2013-14, there were over 52,000 students enrolled in 83 Hasidic schools in New York City, concentrated in the neighborhoods of Borough Park, Williamsburg, Crown Heights (all in Brooklyn). An additional 26,446 students were enrolled in Hasidic schools in places such as Monsey, New Square, and Kiryas Joel. Oversight of these schools by education officials in New York was already non-existent, resulting in many schools flouting state laws. It is projected that by 2030, between 8% and 13% of school-age children in New York City, and between 23% and 37% of school-age children in Brooklyn, will be Hasidic, meaning without action, even more students are on track to being denied a sound, basic education.
“The Felder Amendment tailors State oversight for a small subset of schools based on their religious affiliation, in a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution. There is no secular legislative purpose for the Felder Amendment, which is seen by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious sects as an endorsement of their religious choice regarding education.” said Eric Huang, lead counsel for YAFFED.
Even though the new amendment creates a carve-out that relieves ultra-Orthodox yeshivas from following the rigorous standards set in state education laws for all other non-public schools, these yeshivas continue to benefit from hundreds of millions of tax-payer dollars annually. Federal money flows to yeshivas through programs such as Title I, II, and III; Head Start and child care contracts; the E-rate telecommunications program; and food programs. For example, non-public schools in the largely Hasidic neighborhood of East Ramapo received approximately $835 per student in federal Title funding in 2016-17. In addition, state and city funding is provided to yeshivas through Academic Intervention Services (AIS), Nonpublic School Safety Equipment (NPSE), Mandated Services Aid (MSA), the Comprehensive Attendance Program (CAP), EarlyLearn, Universal Pre-K, child care vouchers, and New York City Council discretionary funds.
It is a well-established fact, going back decades, that most Hasidic boys’ yeshivas, some Hasidic girls’ schools as well as non-Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox boys’ schools fail to provide a basic education to their students. Leaders in the ultra-Orthodox community often boast about the fact that many yeshivas focus on only providing students with a religious education, particularly for boys who are all expected to become rabbis. Few yeshivas administer state tests, including Regents exams, and most yeshivas do not award “graduates” a diploma, making post-secondary education nearly impossible.
The “Education Clause” in Article XI, section 1 of the New York State Constitution ensures the availability of a “sound basic education” to all children in the State and creates the right to adequate instruction along with all the resources that such instruction requires. For public schools, the curriculum for grades one through eight must include instruction in the subject areas of arithmetic, reading, spelling, writing, the English language, geography, United States history, civics, hygiene, physical training, the history of New York State, and science. In high school, academic instruction must include instruction in the English language and its use, civics, hygiene, physical training, American history including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Many yeshivas fail to provide any instruction comparable to instruction in these subject areas.
At many ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, the language of instruction is almost exclusively Yiddish. From ages 7 to 12 many Hasidic boys receive instruction in basic English reading, writing, and arithmetic for only 90 minutes a day, four days a week.
Male students over the age of 13 often spend 12 hours a day receiving instruction only in Judaic studies with no secular instruction.
In a recent survey conducted by YAFFED, of 116 yeshiva graduates and parents of current students, not a single respondent said that their school provided instruction in every subject required by the state. In elementary schools, 65% of those who attended Hasidic yeshivas reported having received some education in English reading, 61% in English writing, and 65% in arithmetic. Less than a quarter (24%) reported learning U.S. History, and only 2% learned New York history. Only 8% of Hasidic boys in the survey received instruction in science, and 10% were taught geography. None recalled any education in art or music. Of the respondents who attended elementary-level Hasidic yeshivas for boys in New York City, 27% said they received no secular education at all in elementary school. At the high school level, 75% of respondents said they received no secular education at all, and for the 25% who did, it was typically optional and often discouraged. Only 14% of respondents said they learned English; 7% in mathematics; 18% in science; and 9% in social studies. None had art or music classes.
Not surprisingly, Hasidic families are at high-risk for poverty and reliance upon government assistance. Approximately 45% of Hasidic households in New York are poor and another 18% are near poor. In the largely Hasidic area of Williamsburg, the median household income is $21,502, compared to the Brooklyn median of $46,958 and the city median of $52,737. Hasidic communities in Brooklyn have a greater percentage of families receiving cash assistance, food stamps, public health care coverage, and Section 8 housing vouchers, as compared to Brooklyn and New York City as a whole. For example, 33.8% of Borough Park residents utilize Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food stamps; in Williamsburg, the number is an astounding 51.8%. The Brooklyn total is 23.8%, while 20.4% of all New York City residents receive SNAP food stamps.
The percentage of people in a heavily Hasidic district of Brooklyn utilizing public income support such as cash assistance (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Medicaid has increased dramatically in the last decade as the population grew rapidly without improvements in education. In Borough Park, 63.1% of the civilian non-institutionalized population receives public health care coverage, compared to 42.7% of all Brooklyn residents and 39.5% in New York City as a whole. In Williamsburg, the proportion of residents receiving public health coverage is 76.6%.
The ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic town of Kiryas Joel was named the poorest town in the country in 2011, with 70 percent of the village’s 21,000 residents living in households whose income fell below the federal poverty threshold. And in 2018, the largely ultra-Orthodox town of New Square was found to be the poorest town in New York State.
“New York’s tens-of-thousands of yeshiva students deserve better – they deserve, like all students, the right to develop the skills that will enable them to lead independent, financially secure lives. With this lawsuit, we’re making it clear: Hasidic children have the right to the education that is constitutionally guaranteed to them by the state of New York.” concluded Moster.
YAFFED is an advocacy group committed to improving educational curricula within ultra-Orthodox schools. We fervently believe that every child is entitled to a fair and equitable education that is in compliance with the law. Our work involves raising awareness about the importance of general studies education, and encouraging elected officials, Department of Education officials and the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox world to act responsibly in preparing their youth for economic sufficiency and for broad access to the resources of the modern world.
A copy of the complaint can be found here