Orthodox yeshivas are poised to opt out of the largest free universal prekindergarten program in the country, one that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says he created with them in mind.
Despite months of talks between New York City officials and Orthodox leaders, activists say that they now don’t expect many yeshivas to participate in the program. That would be a blow to de Blasio, whose administration is seeking to find 50,000 full-day pre-K seats in public and nonpublic schools by the start of the school year.
In a speech at the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America’s annual dinner May 27, de Blasio said he had designed the full-day pre-K program in part so the yeshivas could opt in, and that he was happy with levels of Orthodox participation so far.
Yet activists from across the Orthodox spectrum say city regulations may make it impossible for them to participate. The six hour and 20 minute school day required by the city program, an hour and 20 minutes more than state regulations require, will make it impossible to fit in religious instruction outside city-funded hours, the activists say. And some argue that the limits on religious activities laid out by the city could be unacceptable.
“This is a disingenuous way of including us,” said Maury Litwack, director of state political affairs and outreach for the Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center, the political arm of the large Modern Orthodox umbrella group. Litwack said that the O.U. had supported the universal pre-K program and is backing similar efforts in other states. In New York City, however, it’s not working out for the O.U. “The devil is in the details. And I think the excitement of a UPK program — and we were excited — has waned,” Litwack said.
Agudath Israel of America has not taken a position on the program, but the group’s executive director, Rabbi David Zwiebel, said that schools have expressed skepticism. “Some schools are saying that they think they can live with this, but many are saying that they can’t,” Zwiebel said. “There’s a possibility that, when schools study this carefully and run it by their religious leadership, they will get back to the mayor… and say we can’t live with this.”
De Blasio was backed by a number of Orthodox groups in the 2013 mayoral election, including one half of the large Satmar community and some leaders of the Agudah. A former City Council member whose district included the heavily Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park, de Blasio has pitched himself as a friend of the Orthodox.
Those ties now seem strained. Months of meetings between Orthodox leaders and representatives of the mayor have so far failed to draw Orthodox commitments into what the mayor has touted as his signature program.
The new state-funded program joins a raft of early childhood offerings already available in New York City, including part-day prekindergarten and Head Start programs. The new full-day pre-K is meant to increase the number of public school pre-K classes and to provide millions of public dollars for classes at so-called community-based organizations, including religious institutions.
Orthodox yeshivas in New York City already take government funding for running other early childhood education programs. The full-day universal pre-K funding, however, could vastly increase the public money going to Orthodox educational institutions. The city will pay schools $10,000 per student for a school year, or $7,000 if their teacher does not have a teaching degree. New York State has allocated $300 million to the program in New York City alone.