State attorney general appeals ruling previously celebrated by Haredi leaders

State to court: a failing yeshiva “cannot be deemed to satisfy the requirements of the Education Law,” and state should be allowed to impose penalties and withhold funding

New York State Board of Regents meeting on substantial equivalence. Credit: Shtetl

Oct 26, 2023 4:00 AM


New York State filed an appeal on Tuesday seeking to overturn a prior court ruling that weakened the State Education Department’s authority to enforce its “substantial equivalency” regulations for private schools, including yeshivas.

The appeal, filed by New York State Attorney General Letitia James in the state Appellate Division, Third Department, argued that the prior court ruling, issued in March by New York State Supreme Court Justice Christina Ryba, erred in invalidating specific provisions of the Education Law. Those provisions included one that allowed the SED to declare a particular school “no longer a ‘school’ under the law,” if the institution failed to provide an education that is “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools and failed to improve after being given a chance to do so. 

The initial ruling had been hailed as a victory by leaders in the yeshiva community.

In her appeal, James argued that “allowing a school to continue providing deficient instruction would disserve its pupils and subvert their statutory entitlement to a substantially equivalent education.” 

In her earlier ruling, Ryba also limited the state’s ability to withhold funding or require parents to withdraw their children from inadequate schools. According to the ruling, parents who send their children to such schools could still follow the law by tutoring their child in secular subjects outside of school.

The appeal argued, however, that outside tutoring alone cannot replace a full education. “No provision in the State Constitution or Education Law gives parents the right to ensure that their children receive a substantially equivalent education through a combination of sources.” Additionally, she said, the petitioners did not assert a right “to cobble together” instruction from multiple sources in the first place.

The appeal also argued that the state does not intend to close down schools that are not substantially equivalent, but it contended that the state should be able to withhold funding from inadequate private schools and subject parents to civil and criminal penalties. 

The ruling was made in response to a lawsuit filed by several Haredi educational organizations: PEARLS, an organization that advocates for Haredi schools to formulate their own curricula; Agudath Israel of America, a lobbying organization that represents Haredi Jews; Torah Umesorah, an organization that promotes Jewish religious education; and five Orthodox schools in New York City.

The state argued that the organizations that filed the initial lawsuit lacked legal standing to do so, as they failed to demonstrate, as the law requires, that they would themselves be harmed by the substantial equivalency guidelines. Legal standing refers to a party's right to bring a lawsuit because they are directly affected by the issues at hand. In fact, four of the five schools were registered with SED and deemed substantially equivalent as a matter of course. A fifth was specifically determined to be substantially equivalent, according to a letter sent in June from the New York City Department of Education to an administrator at the school.

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.