New York State court rules that government can withdraw aid from failing yeshivas

Appellate division overrules Supreme Court to empower the state to stop serving private schools that won’t improve secular education.

PEARLS attorney Avi Schick at oral arguments. Credit: Lauren Hakimi/ Shtetl

Jun 27, 2024 4:42 PM


In a crucial decision about secular education in yeshivas, the New York State Supreme Court’s appellate division ruled on Thursday in favor of the state education department’s ability to enforce rules governing private school education.

In doing so, the court ruled against Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, also known as PEARLS, a Haredi organization that formed in 2014 in the wake of increased scrutiny of secular education in Haredi schools. Many of the Haredi schools it represents focus solely on religious studies and provide little to no education in English, math, science, or social studies.

In 2022, the state adopted regulations saying that if a private school is found not to offer adequate secular education, also called “substantial equivalence,” and then refuses to improve it, the state can change the status of that school so that they no longer consider it a school, in which case they don’t have to provide legally required services such as busing or lunch.

In a lawsuit filed in 2022, PEARLS and others challenged those regulations in the New York Supreme Court, which invalidated the enforcement portion of those regulations. But the state appealed that decision, and today, in a divided 4-1 ruling, the majority of judges struck down the earlier ruling and upheld the regulations.

Determining that a school that doesn’t provide a “substantially equivalent” education no longer has the status of a school and, therefore, doesn’t qualify for certain state funding does not constitute an unfair punishment to the school, they said, drawing a distinction between a penalty and a “consequence.” “A declaration that a school does not meet the required standards is simply that,” the judges wrote. “Although the loss of status as a substantially equivalent nonpublic school is a serious consequence, it is merely, or no more than, the logical result of such a determination.”

Removing these services could make a big difference for Haredi schools. In 2022, the New York Times found that Hasidic boys schools receive hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the state. In arguments, a representative of PEARLS said withholding aid would effectively amount to closure, an argument that most judges rejected.

One appellate division judge, John C. Egan Jr., dissented. “The statutory framework affords parents and similarly situated individuals wide discretion in fashioning an acceptable program of instruction, be it in a nonpublic school, homeschooling or a mixture of the two,” Egan Jr. wrote.

But the majority said that it would be unrealistic for a student attending private school full-time to have time to catch up on secular studies at home or in another setting.

“A child attending an institution for a full, lengthy school day period who is not receiving or obtaining a substantially equivalent education in the basics of arithmetic, English, science and history,” the judges said, “cannot adequately supplement this substandard curriculum in the few hours remaining in the week.”

YAFFED, an organization that advocates for secular education in Haredi schools, filed an amicus brief in support of the state in this case. Adina Mermelstein Konikoff — its interim executive director since its former executive director, Beatrice Weber, recently stepped down — celebrated the ruling in a statement to Shtetl.

“It's time for the yeshivas who have been willfully ignoring the law to accept reality and improve their programs,” Mermelstein Konikoff said. “Education is a Jewish value and a fundamental right in the US, regardless of the community children are born into.”

Avi Schick, the attorney representing PEARLS in the case, did not immediately respond to messages asking if they planned to appeal the ruling to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

Read more in Shtetl:
Judges hear oral arguments in state’s appeal against yeshiva advocates
Incompetent teachers and confused students at Hasidic yeshivas, new DOE documents show