The Complicated Truth Behind Packer’s Involvement in an anti-Regulatory Lawsuit
A short train ride away from Packer will take you to schools that Packer students would not recognize. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities have schools, which are referred to as Yeshivas, that prioritize religion and do not equip their graduates for the real world. In an effort to insure a quality education for all New Yorkers, the New York State Education Department introduced a new policy that would ensure that all schools provide an education at least equivalent to that of public school. However, the implementation of this proposal has been hampered, in part due to a lawsuit filed by the New York State Association of Independent Schools in conjunction with Packer.
The ultra-Orthodox yeshivas are very different from the secular schools that are familiar to most Packer students. For starters, the boys and girls are educated separately. Because Jewish girls are not permitted to read Torah (the Old Testament) or Talmud (a collection of texts written by ancient rabbis about the Torah), they have more time to study secular subjects such as English and math, and science that does not contradict religious teachings. As a result, the girls receive much better secular education than the boys.
Throughout their schooling, about half of what girls learn at most yeshivas is secular and the other half is religious. Generally, young boys do not receive any secular education until they reach second grade, where they recieve around 90 minutes of secular education a day. Naftuli Moster, who attended an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, remembers that the message was explicitly given to the boys that secular education is a joke and not to be taken seriously.
Moster reflects that when growing up he “viewed [secular education] as profane.” Once the boys are bar mitzvahed their secular education is usually over, while they can spend up to fourteen hours a day in religious studies. All of these classes are taught in Yiddish, not English. This lack of secular education in English produces graduates who do not know basic skills, cannot contribute to society, and can barely speak English. Moster, who now runs Young Advocates For Fair Education (YAFFED), likes to joke about the language used by kids at yeshivas. “I like to quip that on average, a Hasidic boy utters two words of English a day: ‘bus’ and ‘lunch.’”
Many parents continue to send their children to these schools because they value religious and moral education while staying isolated from the outside world. Many of these schools aim to teach women how to be moral according to their standards, which for them means how to be good mothers and raise their children with the morals they deem to be correct. For men, they are being taught how to be the best Jews they can be. Their goals are not necessarily to enter the workforce and be what many in the secular world deem to be successful. A teacher at one of the more progressive yeshivas, who has chosen to remain anonymous, echoed this sentiment: “The discussion becomes one of values and what you see as success.”
Should schools be allowed to teach without having the goal of producing graduates who will contribute to society? Yeshivas, specifically for boys, sacrifice secular education and the ability to speak English well in exchange for an in-depth religious education. The tragic and staggering poverty in the ultra-Orthodox community may be caused by the dearth of secular education. An ultra-Orthodox person in New York is twice as likely to live in poverty than the average person. In addition, the median household for an ultra-Orthodox family is around half of the median household income for all of New York. As a result, 41% of ultra-Orthodox families are on food stamps. This is likely the result of the fact that they do not provide a useful twenty-first century education. Should the state allow yeshivas to doom their graduates to unemployability?
The anonymous teacher at one of the better yeshivas summed up this phenomenon: “My heart goes out to these guys who are 21 or 22… and then they’re pressured to get married. Then they suddenly realize, ‘I can’t get married because I can’t support anyone, I can’t even support myself because I’m unemployable.’”
The state government has had the ability to ensure that the education at nonpublic schools is ‘at least substantially equivalent’ to that of public schools since 1894. But for a long time the state government has neglected to use this power due to the sizable political power of the ultra-Orthodox. Three years ago the New York State Education Department (NYSED) began the process of trying to change this and ensure a better education for the ultra-Orthodox. This attempt took the form of guidelines which propose to enforce the already existing requirement that nonpublic schools provide an education “at least substantially equivalent to the instruction given to minors of like age and attainments at the public schools of the city or district where the minor resides.”
The guidelines have been met with fierce opposition from religious schools and New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) and some of their schools, including Packer. NYSAIS filed a lawsuit that named Packer as a plaintiff in order to hamper the implementation of the guidelines. The lawsuit was successful in hindering the guidelines because the state was required to release them again as “regulations” which requires a more rigorous process to be approved. When Packer decided to join the lawsuit, they sent out a letter to all parents about why they joined the lawsuit with hopes that parents would be supportive and send their complaints to NYSED.
That letter makes the claim that “the regulations subordinate to public school officials the legal governing authority of our Board of Trustees and our administration. The regulations also profoundly threaten Packer’s ability to develop curriculum and make hiring decisions by requiring that we report changes in curriculum, leadership, and staffing to public school officials who have no knowledge of Packer.” This sentiment is echoed by the Executive Director of NYSAIS, Dr. Mark Lauria: “In essence it would make the independent schools a division of the public school district.”
Eric Huang, a lawyer at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, who has done a lot of work involving these regulations and is also on the board of the Blue School which is a NYSAIS school, disagrees with Dr. Lauria’s representation of the regulations and said that “the idea that all the independent schools would just be sort of a subset of the Department of Education of public schools is just wrong. It is a mischaracterization of what I think the regulation does.”
Packer’s letter to parents about the regulations with another claim which is entitled “Information-Security Risk”: “Test scores, report cards, lesson plans, as well as sensitive information used to design curricula, would potentially be subject to public disclosure, jeopardizing the confidentiality of the school’s relationships with families.” When, in my interview with Dr. Lauria, I mentioned the law FERPA which makes all of the risks described in “Information-Security Risk” illegal, Dr. Lauria said, “Yes that’s correct, under FERPA it is [illegal].” When I asked Dr. Lauria if he had ever heard of anything that is described in “Information-Security Risk” actually happening, he said “no, not that I know of.” Despite the facts that he does not know of this having ever happened and that it would be illegal if it did, Dr. Lauria maintains that it is not worth the risk. An anonymous source, who has been in litigation relating to the regulations, described this letter as containing misinformation and a blatant attempt to incite fear.
Packer’s motivation in joining the lawsuit was wanting to keep their independence, as Head of School Dr. Jennifer Weyburn articulated. “We felt that a change in the regulation would hamper our ability to continue to do the great education that we have.”
However, as Huang points out, “the regulations really weren’t going to create a problem for the [NYSAIS] schools [like Packer].” This is because the regulations are the enforcement of an existing standard that Packer clearly exceeds.
With these regulations, the state and NYSED are trying to help over 100,000 ultra-Orthodox kids who have, from their birth, been doomed to insufficient education, and given no path towards upward mobility, often leaving them impoverished. Their attempt has been hampered by the NYSAIS and Packer lawsuit. Huang articulates the problem with Packer’s and NYSAIS’s desire to be left out of this. “Everyone says ‘oh just address the problem schools, don’t address us.’ The problem is that you can’t, by law, just [impose regulations on certain schools].”
These regulations are aimed to help ultra-Orthodox Jewish children and would not affect flourishing schools like Packer. This begs the question: Is the attempt of Packer and NYSAIS to block the regulations responsible?