National News

DeVos Visits New York Schools, but Not Ones Run by the City

Posted May 16, 2018 11:56 p.m. EDT
Updated May 17, 2018 12:01 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos toured two New York City schools on Tuesday and Wednesday, but the city’s public schools, with their 1.1 million students, were not among them.

Instead, DeVos visited two Orthodox Jewish schools, and offered her strongest comments to date in support of public funding for religious schools in a meeting with Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan and other Catholic dignitaries.

“I know very well there are powerful interests that want to deprive families their God-given freedom” to choose private schools, she told the cardinal and the Alfred E. Smith Foundation, which supports Catholic charities, on Wednesday morning, according to her prepared remarks. “I know that those sycophants of ‘the system’ have kept legislators here from enacting a common-sense program that would open options to thousands of kids in need.”

DeVos has yet to visit a district-run school in New York, and her choice of institutions to visit drew a terse statement from the city’s Department of Education. “An investment in public education is an investment in the future of our city and country,” the department’s press secretary, Toya Holness, said. “Secretary DeVos is welcome to visit NYC public schools and see the phenomenal work we’re doing in the nation’s largest school district.”

DeVos’ Orthodox Jewish school stops, at Yeshiva Darchei Torah, in Far Rockaway, Queens, on Wednesday, and at the Manhattan High School for Girls on the Upper East Side the previous day, culminated months of planning by Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish institutions that counts her as a friend. The Orthodox group and DeVos have known each other for years through their mutual involvement in the national school choice movement, said the organization’s executive vice president, Rabbi David Zweibel. A delegation from the group met with DeVos in March 2017 to speak about yeshivas and education, and at the time, she indicated an interest in seeing some Jewish schools, he said.

But the timing of her visit comes as Orthodox yeshivas are embroiled in a growing controversy locally about whether they provide adequate secular education. It also comes as politicians representing Orthodox Jewish interests have been gaining legislative pull in New York state.

In March, state Sen. Simcha Felder held up the entire state budget to insert language into New York state law aimed at reducing state oversight of yeshivas, which in some cases provide limited or no secular education to boys of high school age.

The failure of some yeshivas to provide a sound basic education has been under investigation in New York City since 2015, but the city has not yet released its report. The investigation was sparked when a grass-roots advocacy group called Yaffed presented allegations that at least 39 ultra-Orthodox Hasidic schools in New York City were teaching such limited secular studies that boys were graduating unable to function outside their Yiddish-speaking religious community.

City officials recently said they had visited 15 of those schools. On Tuesday, the Education Department said it was assessing the effect of the new state law, which in some ways shifts oversight responsibility for the yeshivas back to the state.

The two Orthodox schools chosen for DeVos’ visit were not Hasidic schools, however. Rather, they are schools affiliated with another wing of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, known as Litvish or Yeshivish, which is rooted in Lithuanian Jewish tradition.

Naftuli Moster, the executive director of Yaffed, stood outside the Manhattan School for Girls on Tuesday with a sign to protest the secretary’s visit. “Tens of thousands of Hasidic children are being denied a basic education,” it said. While the schools the secretary visited do offer secular education, he said, “It deeply troubles me when Agudath Israel is framing it as though all of the institutions are as wonderful as this one, when that is not the case,” pointing out that the organization also supports the troubled Hasidic schools. “The fastest growing Orthodox population is in the Hasidic community, and that’s where children are absolutely being robbed of an education.”

Enrollment in Orthodox Jewish schools in New York is steadily rising. According to the Avi Chai Foundation, which conducts a census of Jewish day schools every five years, at least 52,000 children were enrolled in Hasidic schools in New York City in 2013, and 28,500 students were enrolled in Litvish schools. The number of children in Hasidic schools grew more rapidly than any other group, more than doubling between 1998 and 2013, the census found.

At the Manhattan School for Girls on East 70th Street, DeVos toured five classrooms, according to her office. She saw a genealogy lesson, in which girls were tracing their ancestry through the Holocaust, and a forensic science class. While Hasidic ultra-Orthodox schools generally discourage college, many of this school’s graduates do attend, after a year of religious study in Israel, Zwiebel said.

At Yeshiva Darchei Torah, reporters and photographers trailed DeVos as she toured classrooms. In addition to offering nine Advanced Placement classes and Regents exams, the school has a policy of inclusion for some special-needs children, as well as a vocational program for students who are struggling in a traditional academic program, said the founding head of school, Rabbi Yaakov Bender.

Asked why DeVos had elected to only visit Orthodox schools on this visit, her spokeswoman pushed back.

“This will not be the secretary’s last visit to New York City,” said the spokeswoman, Liz Hill, promising that DeVos “is going to visit public schools and charter schools.” Charter schools are public, though they are not run by their local district.

In her remarks to the Smith Foundation, DeVos, who attended private Christian schools and sent her children to them, took aim at the so-called Blaine Amendments, provisions in 37 state constitutions that prohibit government aid to religiously affiliated educational institutions. She called the amendments the “last acceptable prejudice.”

The amendments have been used to fight private school vouchers, a cause DeVos has long championed as a school choice advocate in Michigan and as federal secretary of education.

“These amendments should be assigned to the ash heap of history,” DeVos said. DeVos said there was hope that a recent Supreme Court decision, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. v. Comer, would overturn the Blaine Amendments. In the June 2017 decision, justices found that the state of Missouri had engaged in unconstitutional religious discrimination when it denied a church-run preschool publicly funded tire scraps for its playground.

Last week, the Department of Education announced that DeVos will move to rescind or rewrite regulations that exclude religious institutions from receiving federal aid, to adhere to the most recent case law.