Yeshivas

Critics allege ‘double-standard’ in state education laws requiring English-language instruction at yeshivas

State education official acknowledged a discrepancy between public and private school requirements, but experts noted that critics seek to “obfuscate” the real issue

School bus for Belz yeshiva of Borough Park. Credit: Shtetl

Dec 13, 2023 6:10 PM

Updated: 

A top state education official recently acknowledged a discrepancy within existing education statutes, which require private schools to provide secular studies instruction in English but allow for multilingual programs in public schools under certain circumstances.

The existing education law, dating back to 1894, states: “In the teaching of the subjects of instruction prescribed by this section, English shall be the language of instruction.” However, as some educators recently noted, the law does afford public schools flexibility in offering dual language programs, which it does not currently offer for private schools.

The acknowledgment came in a leaked recording of a conversation between David Frank, a New York State Education Department official, and local educators. In the recording, Frank is heard saying that he disagreed with the law, after being asked about it by a local official. “That provision of the instruction of the core subjects being taught in English really pains me,” Frank said. “I don’t think it’s educational best practice, but it’s set forth in statute.” Nonetheless, Frank said, he did believe “the great majority” of instruction should be in English.

The recording was first mentioned by rabbi and lawyer Aaron Twerski, in a recent opinion piece published by the conservative City Journal magazine. In his article, Twerski noted that New York City public schools run over 200 dual-language programs for students who want an opportunity to be “bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural,” and he alleged that the state was applying a “double standard.”

“NYSED touts these programs as beacons of success in educational and cultural diversity and sensitivity,” Twerski wrote. “Yet it threatens yeshivas and yeshiva parents trying to do the same for their students in the languages of their culture.”

Twerski, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, argued further that having different rules for public and private schools was unfair. “As an educator, I can tell you that this is bad policy,” Twerski wrote. “As a parent who chose yeshiva education for my children, I can tell you that it is a heavy-handed bureaucratic overreach. And as a law professor, I can tell you that it is unconstitutional.”

Education experts, however, took issue with Twerski’s allegations. Kate Menken, a linguistics professor at Queens College and an expert on bilingual education, told Shtetl that Twerski’s opinion piece raises “a very interesting point” — but also seems to misrepresent one key factor: “The programs are bilingual. They’re not monolingual in a language other than English, which is kind of what he’s implying,” Menken said.

David Bloomfield, an education policy professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said Twerski’s article “obfuscates the issues.”

“The real goal of this op-ed is to obscure and confuse the real issue, which is that certain ultra-Orthodox yeshivas in New York State refuse to teach secular subjects, or English, as clearly required by law,” Bloomfield said. 

It makes sense that public and private schools have different rules, Bloomfield told Shtetl, because the government has more oversight over public schools, religion is not taught there, and many of the students who benefit from dual language programs already speak English as a native language.

“The student bodies are very different. Most of the [public school] students are dominant in English,” Bloomfield said. “These are people who can serve in juries, who vote, who require a proficiency in English.”

Haredi leaders have long objected to the state's efforts to enforce standards for secular education. In 2018, partly due to Haredi advocacy, a state court struck down guidelines that NYSED had instituted for private schools. That same year, the city said that school leaders had denied their officials entry to their schools, and state legislators representing a Haredi community helped pass legislation that shifted some oversight responsibilities from the city to the state. Most recently, Haredi leaders were partially successful in challenging NYSED regulations in state court.

According to guidelines the state released in August for private schools, English must be the language of instruction for all common branch subjects. At many Haredi boys’ schools, however, that is far from being the case. As Shtetl previously reported, some offer no English-language instruction at all, with all lessons in Yiddish and Hebrew. At some strict Hasidic schools, administrators specifically instruct parents not to speak English to their children at home.

Twerski did not immediately respond to messages from Shtetl asking how much English, if any, he believes Haredi schools should have to teach.

In New York State, there are multiple types of multilingual education. All schools, including Haredi schools, can offer instruction in a language other than English for three to six years for students with foreign ancestry and limited English proficiency. Public and private schools alike can also offer foreign language electives — classes that are entirely focused on acquiring non-English language skills, and that supplement core subjects such as English literature, history, math, and science. 

But there is also a third type of non-English language instruction that many public schools provide: dual language programs, in which English language learners and students who are already proficient in English are both immersed in a non-English language in addition to English, and core subjects such as math or history can be taught in that non-English language.

Dual language programs in New York City date back to the 1970s, when Puerto Rican civil rights activists sought to improve education for Spanish-speaking students while simultaneously helping them maintain their ethnic identity. The original intention of these programs was to help students who had poor English proficiency, but activists believed that students should have access to Spanish-language education even if they were already proficient in English. Since then, dual language programs have expanded due to popularity.

Reached by Shtetl, NYSED spokespeople did not resolve the apparent discrepancy between guidelines given to private schools and the existence of the dual language programs.

“Any concerns with this law should be presented to the Legislature,” NYSED spokesperson JP O’Hare said. “The Department is obligated to follow all laws as written.”

Lauren Hakimi is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, New York Jewish Week, WNYC/Gothamist and more. She graduated from CUNY Hunter College with degrees in history and English literature. Hailing from an Iranian Jewish community on Long Island, she looks forward to shining a light on stories that matter to the Jewish community. Follow her on Twitter @lauren_hakimi.