Inadequate Secular Education in Haredi Schools is a Sword that Cuts Both Ways for Modern-Day Liberals

New York City Department of Education, under prodding from Yaffed, is facing a dilemma: enforce the state law requiring instruction at private schools to be “substantially equivalent” to that which is given in public schools, and thereby raise the ire of the politically powerful Hasidic constituency; or, alternatively, ignore the law, and Yaffed and its activist allies will continue to embarrass the DOE by harping about the city’s malfeasant neglect of its legal and moral duty to educate all its citizenry out of electoral considerations.

At Least that is the conventional wisdom as to the Sophie’s Choice that the city is facing.

But upon deeper probing it occurred to me that there was something deeply flawed in a law that seems to mandate that parochial schools provide an education to its parish members that conforms to mainstream standards. On the face of it such state coercion would seem to violate the religious freedom clause of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution which allows parishes to exercise any and all religious activity within its scope free from government interference. Such activity naturally includes education, whether in the form of Sunday school or an all-week day school.

Was the New York state law intended to force parochial elementary schools to comply with what was conceived by the educated liberal elite of the mid-nineteenth century to be an optimal curriculum –one that comprises “the twelve common school branches of arithmetic, reading, spelling, writing, the English language, geography, United States history, civics, hygiene, physical training, the history of New York state and science”?

It turns out that such an interpretation is highly dubious.

Background

Prior to the law’s enactment (starting in 1812), child education was private, spotty and costly. Those who could afford it hired (or pooled resources to hire) private tutors for their children to teach them the most rudimentary elements of the important subjects. There was no regular attendance of schools for a fixed number of hours per day and days per year, there were no fixed “grades” (children of different ages and abilities were bunched together on an as-available basis), and, most importantly, school attendance was a privilege of which both parents and children were keenly conscious. No one was forced to be at school; children attended because their parents –and in turn they themselves– were convinced that they would be happier, better, more prosperous citizens as a result of an education that tackled both general knowledge in civics and economic “occupational” skills.

The idea of “public” education was to shift the responsibility to educate the youth from the private sphere to the public one: Thenceforward the public would bear the financial burden of educating its citizenry (funded by higher taxation, of course), so that people who are otherwise too poor or improvident to invest in such a good cause as child education, would no longer have to forgo such an important service. The ROI, it was reasoned, was obvious: better educated children make for better educated adults who then make wiser personal and political decisions and are more productive in the economy.

There may have been some debate at the time as to the wisdom of making education a public service as opposed to the previous private and optional nature of it. Classical liberals and libertarians must have asserted that rich people should not be forced to pay for poor people’s education, and that leaving its administration in private hands made it more nimble and accountable. What was not controversial at the time was the curriculum: Conservative and liberal, religious and irreligious, rich and poor, native and immigrant –all agreed that the legally enumerated subjects of instruction were the best ones to be taught in all schools. Incidentally, there was also no debate at the time as to the method of instruction: what is now disparagingly called “teacher-centered” instruction was then normative and undisputed.

What am I getting at with all this?

The Education Law was not meant to force a new educational standard upon hesitant or unwilling parents. Rather, it was intended to make available a valuable service to the public regardless of individuals’ ability to pay. The clause in the law that required substantially equivalent instruction at private schools was meant to protect the public against a rogue unscrupulous private-school operator who may have been tempted to shortchange its clients by not providing a rigorous education –not out of ideological opposition to what was then unanimously considered a proper education, but out of avarice, i.e. the temptation to cut corners and save money in the operation of a business. (Let’s keep in mind that in those days there were no clearly delineated terms of sales and contracts printed and signed by all parties prior to transactions; so an average consumer wasn’t made aware of the particulars of a private school’s curriculum before he agreed to fork over his hard-earned tuition money.) The law was meant to protect parents from private school operators, not children from a conspiracy between uncaring parents and greedy schools to deprive them of learning.

Modern Times

Well into the twentieth century America was still a melting pot and the proper curricula for school-aged children was accordingly uniformly devised and administered. Only with the 1960’s advent of ethnic pride, prompted by the civil rights movement, did things change. If African-Americans get to demand afrocentric subjects in schools that are predominantly African-American, and if Native-Americans get to gloat about their tribal idiosyncrasies, not to speak of the myriad other identity subculture groups that evolved over the subsequent decades, then why shan’t Hasidim teach its youth in accordance with its peculiar subculture predilections? And with private dollars no less! Hence the now-burgeoning Hasidic parochial school system in New York that encompasses tens of thousands of pupils.

Alas, NY State law was never updated to reflect such a seismic shift in culture and values –one from an axiomatic “one for all” approach towards education, to a brave new world in which “to each his own” reigns supreme.

Let us never forget that the Jewish parochial school system in New York, as elsewhere in the country, is not government-operated or funded. Yes, there are a handful of government programs that help alleviate some of the financial burden that Hasidic schools bear, but such programs does not remotely approach the expenditures at public expense made by public schools in the city (which were as high as approximately $17,000 per pupil annually in 2012). Moreover, most of those programs are federal and are more meant to alleviate poverty than to fund education, e.g. the school lunch program. So there are not, and neither ought there be, any curricular strings attached to such programs (if they are otherwise legitimate in the first place).

Many arguments could be made against the government’s plethora of micro-funds for the assortment of programs that it offers. But such programs apply equally to public schools as they do to parochial schools, and the arguments against the programs apply indiscriminately to both as well. Hasidic schools are not any more obligated to observe a mainstream curriculum because of the marginal funding they receive from such programs, than they would have been had they declined such funding.

I do concede that if, hypothetically, hasidic schools were to be run and financed as public schools, then surely the public should have a say as to how the schools should be run and what its curricula should be. Such oversight would have been natural and in the furtherance of the public’s interest in the core objective of the public school’s mission: raising well-adjusted, civic-minded, economically productive, citizens.

But for liberals, such a debate over what exactly personifies this ideal individual who is “well-adjusted, civic-minded, economically productive”, if you will, opens a can of worms. If you define such personal qualities too narrowly then there is no room for the aforementioned afrocentric class (why should we force non-African-Americans to take such a class? how does it benefit them?) But if you define it too broadly, then we can argue that everything done in Hasidic schools in modern times be brought under its aegis. After all, Hasidim are well-adjusted so long as they don’t venture too much out of their own community, they are civic-minded within their tribe, and they are no less productive than other city minorities who go through the city’s Lexus-model public education system. Why, then, should Hasidic schools not be taken over and funded by the public, as other ethnically-tailored schools are?

There is no good argument for government interference in the way Hasidim run their schools, neither legal nor moral, given that we live in an age wherein there is a consensus that people are entitled to live hyphenated non-assimilatory lives. Where do we draw the line? Why, exactly, should a Modern Orthodox day school be acceptable but a Hasidic one not? Is it that the latter doesn’t foster English as the normal language of communication? Would we then also be in favor of abolishing all federal and state expenditures to adapt public services and messages to Spanish-speaking residents? If you are really intent on dialing back the fragmentation of the American polity by identity politics, then there is a heck of a lot more work to do than pushing for mayor De Blasio to force Hasidim to teach Biology.

 

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3 Responses to Inadequate Secular Education in Haredi Schools is a Sword that Cuts Both Ways for Modern-Day Liberals

  1. BP342 says:

    Your argument will not get very far with Liberals.

    There is a fundamental clash of values as you see secularism as ‘a religious belief system’ like Hinduism or Islam so that its mandated study can be regarded as religious indoctrination. It therefore follows that it can be subject to the First Amendment.

    For Liberals secular studies are the opposite of ‘a religious belief system’ and to be considered as ‘knowledge of a non religious nature’ so that your statement that ‘on the face of it such state coercion would seem to violate the religious freedom clause of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution’ is a non sequitur.

    The question of as to what does or does not amount to a ‘religious belief system’ has been considered by the Supreme Court in a case were a state legislature mandating creationism to be taught together with evolution. The Supreme Court held the mandating teaching of creationism was unconstitutional. It did not hold that mandating the teaching of evolution to be unconstitutional.

    Your historical analysis is incorrect. Liberals will compare education to housing. The state can not force individuals to live in public housing but they can force individuals in private houses to have bathrooms and be habitable by modern standards. The fact that a particular inhabitable apartment may have been considered habitable a century ago is of no consequence.

    • Jacob Gluck says:

      I don’t understand what you are saying. How is religious education different from other types of religious activity that are protected by the first amendment. Government regulation of construction/housing and the debate over whether or not to teach creationism in public schools has nothing to do with this.

  2. BP342 says:

    I do not deny that religious education is protected by the First Amendment. However the requirement that children have secular education to standards set by government does not violate the First Amendment. If it did, then no secular school could be funded! If I was not obligated to pay federal, state and local taxes, I would work a four day week. This would enable me to spend every Monday engaging in religious activity which I cannot now afford to do if I am to pay my bills. Would you suggest that taxation violates the first amendment as it undermines my ability to otherwise engage in religious activity?

    Parents have a choice as to whether to send a child to a public or private school in the same way as they have a choice whether to send a sick child to a public or private hospital. However it remains in the public interest that private hospitals and public hospitals have similar standards in health care. A private hospital with inadequate care can be closed down by government notwithstanding that it is not publicly funded. Why should a private school with inadequate teaching not likewise be closed down notwithstanding it is not publicly funded? Likewise the government can close a privately funded building for failing to comply with building codes notwithstanding it was not publicly funded.

    The point I was making regarding building codes is that standards change over time. Buildings considered adequate in the 19th century (and cars manufactured in the 1970’s) would not pass modern codes. Whats the point of arguing that in the 19th century the standard of secular education for most children (particularly girls, and poorer boys) was much lower than that expected today?

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