State Sen. Simcha Felder, a key Democrat who sits with the GOP, insists he’s not holding up a state budget over education issues at yeshivas despite Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie suggesting otherwise. Felder spoke to the press on Friday, March 30, 2018.
Jon Campbell / Albany Bureau
In the 11th hour of state budget negotiations, Simcha Felder, a state Senator from Brooklyn, proposed to strip the State Education Department of their authority to regulate curriculum in certain private schools.This proposal, the Senate Republican/Democratic dynamics, and Sen. Felder’s refusal to vote for a budget without this change sent the entire state budget into chaos. At the center of the debate was the following question: Should New York enforce its law that requires private schools to provide a “substantially equivalent” curriculum to the public schools?
Why does New York have a “substantially equivalent” law?
In 1874, the State of New York made education compulsory for every child between the ages of 8 and 14. By 1903, the law was changed to require children up to the age of 16 to attend school. Compulsory education laws are a simple concept; it is in the public interest for all children to receive a sound, basic education. This is why we don’t allow children to stay home or quit school and begin working. It is the legal responsibility of parents to ensure their child attends school. To stress the seriousness, the law provides for fines or even jail time if a parent neglects this innate responsibility. A child’s right to an education is paramount and is integral to a free society and productive economy. If you accept this premise, the logical next step for government is ensuring an adequate curriculum for our modern economy.
Why has this become a major issue in New York?
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In 2015, a complaint was filed by parents, students and teachers with the City of New York alleging that 39 yeshivas were failing to provide a “substantially equivalent” education. There was also a lawsuit filed in Rockland County. Both complaints alleged that schools were not teaching secular subjects in a manner that was similar to that of the public schools. These complaints prompted a discussion on the rarely enforced “substantially equivalent” law which is the safety net for all students in private education.
This Thursday, March 29, 2018 photo shows the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y. New York lawmakers inched closer to a deal on a new state budget Thursday that includes a tax on opioid manufacturers, surcharges on taxi (AP Photo/Hans Pennink) (Photo: Hans Pennink, AP)
Fast forward to 2018, SED is currently developing guidelines on how to determine if a school is meeting the “substantially equivalent” standard. These guidelines have yet to be released but have apparently spurred a fear by certain stakeholders in the private school community who do not want any oversight.
How did this affect the budget process?
This issue was not discussed or proposed by the governor, Assembly or Senate until the last minute when Sen. Felder sought to eliminate all curriculum oversight by SED in certain private schools. This was met with strong opposition in the Assembly where I, and other members, assailed this attempt as playing politics with children’s education.
One might ask how one senator could interrupt a state budget over a proposal that sought to dismantle one of the bedrock principles of education. Sen. Felder, a Democrat, caucuses with the Republicans and is the key to the Republican majority; giving them the crucial 32nd vote needed for a majority.
What was included in the final budget?
- The Good: The Assembly was successful in maintaining SED’s authority over curriculum. The final language sets specific guidelines for determining substantially equivalency; however, SED is not limited to just these guidelines.
- The Bad: A dangerous precedent has been set. The budget delineates a new set of standards for schools that start before 9 a.m. and end after 4 p.m. and offer a bilingual program. This was a thinly veiled attempt to shield only certain yeshivas from the current process. Setting up a separate standard, based upon the religion of certain private schools, is unconstitutional and dangerous to the educational policy of our state. The specificity of the new language is bizarre and unvetted.
- The Ugly: One senator should not be able to derail an entire state budget with such a radical proposal in the 11th hour of budget negotiations. Long ago we made a decision in this state and country that an educated citizenry was both a moral and civic imperative. This should apply to all schools and all students regardless of their public, private, religious or sectarian status. Furthermore, many of these schools get state funding for mandated services, nutrition, busing, textbooks and special education. It is irresponsible to argue that public taxpayer funds should be expended without any public oversight.
In my opinion, this issue is non-negotiable. We should be strengthening standards, not rolling them back. That is why I sponsored a bill, A1305, that would give SED more authority to investigate violations of the law. This is a matter of equity for all children. Education is the “great equalizer,” as it provides all persons, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity the foundation necessary to participate in our society. The quality of that education must not depend on where you grew up or what type of school you attended.
The writer, a New City Democrat, represents the 96th District in the New York State Assembly.
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