NYC Mayor De Blasio defends probe of politically connected Jewish schools

Nine schools were determined to be outside the scope of the probe for various reasons, including one that turned out to be a butcher shop.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (photo credit: REUTERS)
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Mayor de Blasio defended his devalued probe of politically connected Jewish yeshivas at a contentious press conference on Thursday, talking up the investigation after it drew fire from both the schools’ backers and critics.
“We engaged in a dialogue with a number of schools that I think was very productive and resulted in real changes,” de Blasio said of the probe, which counted as participants only half the schools that were flagged for the investigation.
Speaking to reporters at an unrelated event in Brooklyn, de Blasio tried to beat back accusations that he intentionally stalled the city’s three-year probe of religious schools. He accused the media of looking for "instant gratification" in the investigation, which was launched in 2015.
“The goal was to make the schools as good as they should be to meet the standards, and I know, I actually empathize with the concept that might be felt amongst the media of wanting some instant gratification on this,” he said.
City Education Department officials issued a hotly anticipated update on city Yeshivas Thursday, with a letter sent to state Education Department officials that showed investigators visited only 15 of 39 schools accused of denying students lessons in basic subjects such as math and reading.
Nine schools were determined to be outside the scope of the probe for various reasons, including one that turned out to be a butcher shop.
The 14-page letter signed by city schools Chancellor Richard Carranza reported evidence of shoddy instruction at the schools the city visited during the three-year probe, which de Blasio was accused of delaying to avoid angering orthodox Jewish voters.
But the letter, sent to the state after de Blasio won re-election with the support of the orthodox community, said that 15 schools refused to even allow the city to do an inspection, despite the fact that they accept public funding for food, transportation, textbooks and other necessities.
The letter asked the state Education Department, which has the authority to oversee the schools, for guidance on how to proceed.
“We deeply believe that all students — regardless of where they attend school — deserve a high-quality education,” Carranza said of the letter. “We will ensure appropriate follow up action is taken based on guidance.”
De Blasio said it was “not an acceptable state of affairs” that the 15 schools wouldn’t let DOE employees inside.
“We don’t have the ability to force our way in physically,” he said. “That’s why we’re turning to (the state) now after what has been unquestionably substantial engagement to say, OK, what do you do when a school won’t let you in? We’d like guidance because we’re ready to take whatever steps that they indicate are appropriate.”
Carranza’s letter praised the progress that many of the schools have made in adopting secular lessons in English, math and science.
But it raised serious concerns over the 15 schools that refused visits from investigators.
Yeshiva backers called the probe an attack on Jewish religious schools.
“These schools have been accused of ignoring the educational needs of the students,” said Avi Schick, an attorney who represents the schools. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Schick disputed Carranza’s claim that city investigators couldn’t access 15 of the yeshivas accused of shortchanging students.
“Access was never denied by those schools — and access will never be denied by those schools,” he said.
But YAFFED executive director Naftuli Moster, a yeshiva critic who organized the 2015 complaint that prompted the city’s investigation, said that Carranza didn’t go far enough in its probe.
“We are deeply disappointed that it took three years for the city to investigate only half the schools we identified, before passing the buck to the state,” Moster said.
Yaffed — Young Advocates for Fair Education — has called for improving secular education in Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools.
The group has said that male students at some yeshivas get just 90 minutes of instruction or less in math and reading, four days a week until age 13, and none after that.
Carranza’s letter cites Yeshiva graduates who told the city that the highest level of math they’d learned was fractions, and some graduates said they had difficulty writing in English.
Pressed on what he’d say to advocates who argue children are still getting a substandard education, de Blasio took an unorthodox approach, saying that some of the city’s public schools aren’t so hot, either.
“There’s two sides to every story,” de Blasio said. “We have 15 schools where we went in, a lot of work was done, clearly there was room for improvement but I have to be straightforward and say there’s room for improvement in a lot of traditional schools, too.”
State Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said state officials would review the city’s letter and consider recent changes to state law that may have impacted oversight of the schools.
“We are continuing to update our guidance and determine next steps, given the latest change in law,” DeSantis said.
“The purpose of updating the guidance remains the same,” she added. “To ensure that all New York state students, whether they attend a public or nonpublic school, receive a quality education that prepares them for success in life.”