I don’t know the details. But here is how Josh Nathan-Kazis describes it in a Forward article:
The bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffe in early May, is one of two proposals currently moving through the New York State Legislature that seek to give teeth to existing legislation that already requires nonpublic schools to teach subjects similar to those taught in public schools…
The bill would require nonpublic schools to submit reports to the state to prove that they provide instruction that is “substantially equivalent” to what is given in public schools, and would give the State Education Department the power to investigate and punish schools that don’t meet equivalency standards.
On the surface, I strongly support this legislation. Because I assume it is limited to exactly what this description says it is: to provide teeth to an existing law requiring core secular subjects to be taught in non public schools on par with what is taught in public schools.
In fact most non Chasidic Orthodox schools in America – whether Modern Orthodox or Charedi already comply with this law. Some better than others, but all comply to at least minimum levels to satisfy the New York State requirement. But the Chasidic schools of Satmar and similar Chasidic type schools - with little exception do not teach any secular subjects at all. (There are some non Chasidic schools that have been going in that direction too but at the moment they are still in the minority.)
The idea that there is a Hashkafa that devalues secular studies to the point of completely rejecting them as any part of their educational curriculum is something that has disturbed me to no end. (In Israel this is the norm for virtually all Charedi schools - Chasidic or not. But that is beyond the scope of this post.) There is no excuse for allowing your children to grow up ignorant of the world at large and how to function in it.
They will counter that they do just fine with the education they get and are able to support their large families without any such education. Adding that whatever sacrifice they make in promoting their insular lifestyles is well worth the trade-off that would better their lives if they were to engage with it. Not educating them in secular knowledge contributes to that end. Besides, they will say that the time ‘wasted’ on secular studies is far better used in studying Torah and related subjects full time.
Even if I were to grant them their right to educate their children as they see fit, there is the little matter of breaking the law. And the fact that the Chasidim of Satmar are being shortchanged while indoctrinated to believe that they are not. And that because of this lack of education they are made to rely on government welfare programs. Not to mention the fact that the financial pressure placed upon them by trying to support their large families on meager incomes - has caused some of the less scrupulous among them to devise schemes to defraud the government.
Until now the law requiring educational equivalency has been observed mostly in the breach – with impunity from state government officials. So Satmar and like-minded Chasidim have lived in virtual ignorance of how to live in the real world and make a decent living – many of whom are oblivious to this very fact. While there are some very successful Satmar businessmen - some of whom are multi millionaires – this is obviously the exception. The vast majority live below the poverty line.
I care about my fellow Jews of Satmar. So, again, I support Jaffe bill as it is described in the brief excerpt above. If however it would give license to the government to force teaching values that are anathema to Judaism I would be opposed on first amendment grounds. I doubt, however, that this is the case since virtually all the Orthodox Jewish day schools and high schools that teach secular subjects have never been required to teach those values.
The Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel, however, insists that this will be the case. And he is complaining bitterly about the possible passage of this bill. From the Forward:
Teitelbaum, the Satmar leader, put the threat posed by Jaffe’s bill in stark terms. He claimed that the bill would allow the government to determine every aspect of the curriculum at Hasidic schools. “The worldview taught in public school, it’s hard to even bring it to my mouth,” Teitelbaum said.
I tend to doubt that. Interestingly other major Orthodox organizations like the OU and especially Agudah have remained silent about this bill, neither supporting nor opposing it. It makes me wonder if they privately feel that there is some justification to it, and yet will not officially support it for fear of alienating a constituency that sees Satmar as justified. Or are they simply afraid to get involved for fear of becoming government targets themselves? Perhaps they feel this issue is not worth spending any of their political capital on. Or maybe they simply haven’t had a chance to voice their opposition to the bill yet. I don’t know but I hope it’s the former.
Freedom of religion is paramount. But if that right is not infringed upon (which I do not believe this bill does), I am in full support of it. At the end of the day, if an educational curriculum is implemented similar to that of other Orthodox schools, it will be a win/win for everyone. But those benefiting the most from this bill will be the Chasidim themselves. They will be better able to support their families with it… relying less on government welfare programs.