Judges hear oral arguments in state’s appeal against yeshiva advocates

At issue is whether the state can institute enforcement mechanisms for the regulations it sets for nonpublic schools, including yeshivas

State attorney Beezly Kiernan delivering remarks during today’s oral arguments in Albany. Credit: Shtetl

Mar 28, 2024 7:40 PM


Judges from the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division heard oral arguments in Albany on Thursday on a case being closely watched across the Haredi world, and which may determine what Haredi schools must teach for years to come. Prior to the session, leaders across a wide spectrum of the Haredi world issued dramatic calls for communities to mark the day with special prayers, seeing in this case an unprecedented threat to the Haredi way of life.

At issue is whether nonpublic schools, including yeshivas, which are required by law to provide an education that is substantially equivalent to that of public schools, may skirt that obligation by having parents supplement their children’s education through tutoring or homeschooling. That position is being promoted by PEARLS, or Parents for Educational And Religious Liberty in Schools, an organization that advocates for Haredi schools to dictate their own curricula, along with several other organizations.

Beezly Kiernan, attorney for the office of the New York State Attorney General. Credit: Shtetl

However, the state considers that position categorically inconsistent with the basic legal function of a school, for purposes of providing compulsory education.

“Allowing a school to continue providing deficient instruction would disserve its pupils and subvert their statutory entitlement to a substantially equivalent education,” New York State Attorney General Letitia James had argued in documents appealing a lower court order issued in March 2023.

An additional argument raised at today’s session was the issue of standing, the legal concept requiring parties filing a lawsuit to demonstrate that they are being harmed by the matter at hand. Beezly Kiernan, attorney for the state, argued that PEARLS and the other organizations alongside it, including schools that are party to the suit, do not have standing to challenge the regulations set by the New York State Education Department, as they have not actually been harmed by them.

At least one judge appeared to sympathize with the state’s argument. “Standing is a major issue here,” Justice Elizabeth A. Garry said during the proceedings.

Avi Schick, a lawyer for PEARLS, argued in response that schools already suffer harm due to the threat of future punishment, even if they haven’t been formally punished yet.

Avi Schick, attorney for PEARLS and other yeshiva advocates. Credit: Shtetl

But the key issue remained about the state’s right to institute educational regulations, with consequences to schools that do not comply with them.

“It beggars disbelief,” Kiernan said, that the lower court would rule that the state could create regulations but have no way to enforce them.

While the state acknowledged that it could not force a noncompliant school to shut down, as the obligation to educate children is on parents, not on schools, it had a right to withhold government funds from such schools.

“Metropolitan Opera Ballet School is not a school that provides compulsory education fulfilling the requirement,” Kiernan said, arguing that just because a school offers educational value does not make it eligible for government funding. And the law, Kiernan argued, does not allow parents to fulfill their obligation by giving their children extra tutoring, if their children’s schools don’t teach basic subjects like English, math, science, and social studies.

But Schick argued that the state was “dancing around the issue.” To withhold funding from a school, he said, is functionally similar to shutting it down. Furthermore, he said, to withhold funding from schools would punish students, who were entitled to government aid regardless of whether the school offered an adequate secular education. 

Today’s oral arguments took place at Albany Law School, where students filled the courtroom, alongside lawyers, court employees, journalists, and activists.

Chris Hazen and Ben Tocker, staffers representing YAFFED, an organization that advocates for secular education in Haredi schools, were among those present. In a statement to Shtetl, YAFFED executive director Beatrice Weber said she found that “the case set forth by NYSED is strong and compelling.”

In the earlier ruling that the state is challenging, New York State Supreme Court Justice Christina Ryba limited the state’s ability to withhold funding or require parents to withdraw their children from schools that the state does not view as offering adequate secular education. According to Ryba, parents who send their kids to such schools could still follow the law by tutoring their child in secular subjects outside of school.

The state has determined that a number of Hasidic boys’ schools in Brooklyn do not offer education that is substantially equivalent to public school education, as is required by law. But none of the schools that are party to the case before the court today have received such a determination, with one of the schools, Yeshiva Chasan Sofer, explicitly found to be substantially equivalent, because it is affiliated with a high school that is registered with the state.

Read more in Shtetl:

Haredi leaders suggest enforcement against failing yeshivas won’t happen

State attorney general appeals ruling previously celebrated by Haredi leaders

State finds another 12 Hasidic schools offer inadequate secular education