New York’s faith community alarmed by Department of Education’s proposed ‘intrusion’ into religious schools

A principal told Fox News Digital that he worried New York’s proposed regulations could cause a slippery slope that would bring in the progressive agenda

Published by Hannah Grossman in Fox News on June 28, 2022.

The New York Education Department proposed regulations on private and religious schools are irking some in the faith community, such as Catholics, Muslims and Jews, due to fears of possible overreach, Fox News Digital has learned.

It wants to force religious schools to come into substantial equivalence with the [public] schools,” Ismail Royer, the director of the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute, told Fox News Digital. “And the problem is New York public schools are not doing very well. The religious schools are doing a far better job. And certainly, that’s the case with Yeshivas and Catholic schools, and it’s definitely the case with Islamic schools.”

New York’s regulations would strengthen those that already exist in order “to ensure that all students receive the education to which they are entitled,” the Education Department said in June. These are known as “substantially equivalent instruction” regulations. However, critics see the regulations as a “slippery slope” and an uncomfortable intrusion into their values. The department plans to make a final decision in September.

“On the face of it, it looks pretty reasonable. Why wouldn’t we want to make sure that religious schools are… making sure that children get the education that’s going to help them survive in the world. But… this implies that there’s some sort of a gap that’s going on right now… requires government intervention. The government doesn’t need to intervene in every aspect of private life,” Royer continued. “New York needs to focus on its own approach to its own public school system other than, you know, you can start the manner with which religious schools which are doing a fine job of educating children.”

“There’s no question there’s been this trend of foreign interference of New York state public school authorities into the operation of their schools,” Royer said, “Parents right now are going to be really concerned about increased meddling by… public school authorities into the schools because of the very fact that these schools are refuges from school for these parents from New York State public schools.”

Michael Deegan, the superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York – which represents more than 67,000 students in New York State – told Fox News Digital that the archdiocese never had a problem with “equivalency,” which has been on the books for decades, until now. He added that his community values academics and that his motto is, “Our job is to get our children not into Harvard, but into heaven, by way of Harvard.”

“There are many reasons why parents send their children to a Catholic school,” Deegan said. “First and foremost is that they want their children to be educated in the Catholic faith and that the secular subjects that we teach are enveloped with Catholic teaching, Catholic doctrine and our Catholic faith. That’s why they don’t send their children to public schools, because they don’t buy into the curriculum – they don’t buy into the agenda. They don’t buy into what, in some cases, are antithetical to what we as Catholics believe.”

Catholic parents have been contacting Deegan expressing concern over the regulations. They fear that an “agenda” could come into their schools down the line. 

“Parents express[ed] concern over what could become, not today, [a]… governmental overreach, an intrusion into Catholic schools that goes beyond simply saying, ‘Well, your schools are or are not substantially equivalent.’ But rather are going in and saying that we are now going to tell you what you need to do to make your schools substantially equivalent in terms of curriculum, books, materials and resources. And that’s not what we want.” 

“My concern is singularly focused on local public school districts’ overreach, their intrusion,” Deegan continued. “I do not want the local public school districts and school boards to come in with an unspoken or spoken and articulated agenda that contradicts and violates the fundamental principles of all Catholic institutions. That’s why people have the freedom to choose. They can choose to send their children to a public school, or they can choose freely, at their own expense, to send their children to a Catholic school. So the idea that a local public school district would have the authority to get deputized by the state is… completely opposed by the Archdiocese of New York.”

For example, some regulations propose that the “local school authority” in a public school district would review private schools in 2024-2025, and every seven years thereafter. If it is determined by the superintendent after review that the private school does not meet the “substantial equivalence of instruction,” it would be reported to the Department of Education.

“If the [the board of education] renders a negative substantial equivalence determination the nonpublic school will no longer be deemed a school that provides compulsory education fulfilling the requirements of Article 65 of the Education Law,” the proposed regulations stated.

“The draft regulations provide a variety of ways for non-public schools to demonstrate substantial equivalence,” Department of education officials told Fox News Digital. “The compulsory attendance law protects a child’s right to be educated and Education Law §3204(2) provides that ‘Instruction given to a minor elsewhere than at a public school shall be at least substantially equivalent to the instruction given to minors of like age and attainments at the public schools of the city or district where the minor resides.’ The department is responsible for promulgating regulations for implementation of the law.”

Fox News Digital also spoke to a principal at Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, Richard Altabe, who was involved in raising awareness among the Orthodox Jewish community about the proposed regulations. Over 200,000 Jewish parents and alumni of Yeshivas (Jewish K-12 schools) submitted letters opposing the regulations until the end of May – when the comment period of the determination process ended. 

“The regulation doesn’t impose critical race theory on me, yet. The regulation opens the door for the legislature to create a law that forces me to teach critical race theory. Then I would have to accept and have no place to go otherwise. So that’s the problem. It’s just a slippery slope. It opens the door to something that we’re not on board for, and therefore we have to fight for our right to teach our kids what we think is proper,” Altabe said.

 “This is not about improving reading and math. If it would just be about improving reading and math, I’d sign that in a heartbeat. Because why not?” the principal of the Orthodox Jewish school said. 

“[These regulations are] turning the New York State Education Department into a regulatory agency, which I don’t believe it’s its job,” he continued. “Yes, there is a law on the books since 1895 that says now public schools have to be substantially equivalent. Equivalent doesn’t mean exact equivalent, so we’re entitled to have our religious studies program, which is very robust, with plenty of subjects in Judaic studies that actually align very well with Common Core principles.” 

Altabe said that New York public school students are seeing declining numbers in literacy for their grade level and that the state should worry about their own institutions instead of picking on private schools. “They don’t have to answer any questions about what they did to their own public school students, which, by the way, will affect the entire generation of kids in school below fifth grade for the rest of time. I mean, there’s nothing you can do about that. There’s a window where you can learn how to read, and the kids who missed school did not learn how to read. What are they doing about that? Where’s that question now?”

“What we have a problem with is that everything in substantial equivalency law points to an imposition of New York State law in terms of education upon schools… You can see how it’s a slippery slope. There’s a law on the books that you have to teach traffic safety. I have no problem with teaching traffic safety, but if it’s mandated because the legislature voted on that. So where does that leave me?… So if the state legislature is going to continue to go on a progressive path here in New York State, what’s next?”

Altabe said the parents from his school would not be comfortable if their kids were learning about critical race theory. “If they’re going to tell me that everything that New York state decides in the legislature must be taught in a private school and there’s no carve-outs or religious exemptions, then we’re at risk that we’re going to end up having to teach things we do not believe in, and we are not religiously going to believe in certain parts of the progressive agenda.”

“If the progressives wanted to have an agenda for the general public, we in the religious community never had a qualm with them because, if that’s what you would like for your world, beautiful. Do what you think you need to do. But when you start imposing that on my world and my parents, and you take away their right to choose schools that align with their beliefs, then I have a problem,” he said. 

“I’m hearing crazy stories. I know of a school in Manhattan that… – because it’s LGBTQ month – pride month – they had the girls dress up as boys and the boys dress up as girls. Okay, I’m not going to do that. My parents will never let me do that. That should be the parents’ decision. If they want to go to a school like that, fine. But they should be able to go to school like ours, if that’s what they believe in… I’m not discriminating against other people who are different from me, but I think the people who are like me have the right to send their children to schools that align with their values.”

Department of education officials added that they have “long recognized the right of parents to choose an alternative to the public school.”

“Churches, temples, mosques, and other groups of people are guaranteed the right to provide educational programs in accordance with their religious beliefs and educational philosophies. Over the years, nonpublic schools have been an integral part of the total educational system of the State.”