Accountability · Finding the Right School

Why My Kids Accuse Me of Being a NYC Public Schools Hypocrite

New York City schools are off for Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, on Monday, September 10, and Tuesday, September 11. (To read why I think all cultures should be allowed to take off their holidays, and how that would work in practice, click here.)

One of the rituals of Rosh HaShanah is tashlich, where sins are symbolically cast out upon the waters.

In the spirit of the holiday, I have a relevant sin to confess: I am a hypocrite when it comes to NYC schools.

Or so my kids tells me.

While I am obsessively rabid about the concept of school choice, writing that all parents have the right to select the educational environment they think will be best for their child, be it rigorous academics, a progressive approach, a focus on the arts, a focus on STEM, public, private, charter, or religious, my middle child observed that I was in favor of the investigation into NYC’s yeshivas (ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools which are not to be confused with independent Jewish day schools, or the Hebrew Language charter schools, which don’t teach religion, at all).

According to the NY Post:

Critics, including ex-students and parents, warn that the 25,000 kids in the yeshivas are being cheated out of basic instruction in key secular areas, like math, reading, writing, science and history. Kids under 13 get only six hours a week of English and math, and no science or history at all. English classes stop completely after boys turn 13. The result? Students leave the schools deprived of the basic skills they’ll need in a secular world.

The city’s investigation has been going on since 2015 and, so far, only 15 of 39 accused yeshivas have been visited. The Department of Education claims this is because the rest of the schools have denied them access.

My son pointed out that I am siding with the 52 former students and teachers who “wrote the city education department charging that the yeshivas were ignoring state law. The law requires private schools to provide an education “substantially equivalent” to what is available in public schools.” (How I feel about what the public schools offer as adequate is a whole other issue.)

“But if it’s what their parents want,” my son challenged, “then shouldn’t they be able to have it?”

Yeah, that’s a stumper, alright.

On the one hand, when I work with families to help them find the best school for their child, I often recommend institutions whose philosophies I don’t necessarily agree with, if they fit the families’ criteria. After all, different people have different views on what makes a “good” school. (See some of the available options, here.)

But, on the other hand there’s the yeshivas and the Young Advocates for Fair Education, started by Naftuli Moster, “who found that his Borough Park Hasidic yeshiva left him woefully unprepared for college. At 18, Moster did not know how to do long division or write an essay. He’d never heard of a molecule, a cell, or the U.S. system of checks and balances.”

And there is also a public school like Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where not one student passed either the state math or English Language Arts (ELA) tests in 2015, 2016, or 2017 (2018 scores won’t be released until late September).

Wadleigh was set to be closed in 2012, but parents and community leaders protested. It was added to the Renewal program in 2014, but, as with the majority of schools in that program, no progress was made.

Closure was, once again, announced for 2018. This time, Chancellor Richard Carranza stepped in. Why? Because families felt it deserved a second – third? Fourth? – chance.

The New York Times writes:

The school’s supporters — including nearly the entire political establishment of Harlem, the president of the N.A.A.C.P.’s New York branch and the head of the Harlem Chamber of Commerce — argue that its abysmal test scores are not the whole story…. Paul McIntosh, the school’s longtime librarian and another leader in the fight to save the school, said, “There have been efforts to blame the victim for a long time. But if there was the will to make this right, to really edify these young people; if one is approaching it with a pure heart, it would be done.”

Fighting to keep open a failing – at least, as far as test scores are concerned – school can be seen as a form of choice, too. Parents and communities want this school, even when the children in it are not receiving an adequate education as assessed by any manner of objective accountability (the same applies to the yeshivas).

So what’s a school choice activist, who also believes that American schools set the bar far too low for all kids to do?

I genuinely don’t know how to reconcile those two principles.

Hey, didn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald say: The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. (Then again, didn’t he drink himself to death? Maybe this caused it.)

All I know is, this year, I’m going to add possible hypocrisy to my list of tashlich sins. And I’m going to use the time between now and Yom Kippur to think about it.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, share your thoughts on the issue with us, below!


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