As we’ve posted about before, New York State Sen. Simcha Felder — a “Democrat” who caucused with the Republicans, giving them a one-vote majority — essentially held the state’s budget hostage until it agreed not to interfere with the curriculum at yeshivas, the schools for Orthodox Jews. That meant there could be no oversight of schools that did a pathetic job of educating students about anything other than their holy book.
But one of the consequences of the 2018 elections was that Democrats won a clean majority of seats in the State Senate. Felder’s vote no longer matters as long as the other (actual) Democrats stick together, which is what they seem to be doing so far.
We’ll get back to the new politics of New York in a second.
To make sense of this story, you also need to know that a group of students affected by the weakened oversight, called Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), sued state officials last summer. They said that the law, which singles out Orthodox schools for this special treatment, violated church/state separation.
One student said he receive no secular education after age 13: “I received zero secular education from the age of 13 till the end… I repeat: zero. No English, no math, no history, no science, no social studies, no physical activity, no gym, no sports, no nothing.”
The lawsuit maintained that there was “no secular legislative purpose for the Felder Amendment and its principal effect promotes the religious beliefs of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community with respect to education.”
Keep in mind that these religious schools still receive hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds each year to run Head Start, child care, and food programs. Not all these children will grow up to be Orthodox rabbis or housewives, either. And if they ever break out of the bubble, they will be left without a solid foundation, all thanks to a state legislature that won’t stand up for the students.
This lawsuit still hasn’t been resolved in the courts, but now that Democrats have a unified government in the state, the member groups of Secular Coalition for America (including the Society for Humanistic Judaism) are urging the legislature to undo the damage Felder caused.
We the undersigned secular and humanistic organizations believe that children have a fundamental human right to receive a quality education in secular subjects such as of English language, mathematics, science, history, and social studies that builds their capacity to become productive members of society and achieve their full potential. It is harmful to children and antithetical to the humanistic values of personal dignity and individual autonomy when children receive a substandard core secular curriculum. We believe government has a responsibility to enforce these secular core standards. While freedom of religion is a central tenet of democracy, it should not infringe on secular education that is fundamental to human progress and dignity.
… we urge the New York State legislature on its own to rescind the Felder Amendment and urge New York’s Department of Education to enforce its core secular educational standards for all schools, including yeshivas. Additionally, we implore New York’s Commissioner of Education to strengthen oversight and enforcement of state laws that require educational equivalency in non-public schools.
It’s the right move. The politicians earned all kinds of praise this week for passing much-needed voting rights legislation and anti-discrimination laws. They need to add education reform to their plate and this is a simple fix to make that would have outsized benefit.
We shouldn’t have to rely on the courts to fix our mistakes when legislators can do it on their own.
Incidentally, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has also launched an initiative called Jews for a Secular Democracy. It promotes church/state separation but from a perspective that doesn’t always get a lot of air time in the media. More power to them.
(Screenshot via YouTube. Large portions of this article were published earlier)