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NYC mayor’s office promised Orthodox leaders report would be ‘gentle’ on yeshivas, emails show

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio personally called Orthodox leaders asking them to support his effort to retain control over the city’s schools in exchange for soft-balling a probe into the state of secular education at yeshivas, according to internal emails obtained by the New York Post.

The emails from late June support a report, released last year by the Department of Investigation and the Special Commissioner of Investigation for New York City’s public schools, which found that City Hall engaged in “political horse-trading” on the issue.

The leak of the emails is the latest episode in a years-long saga over the quality of education at some of the city’s Orthodox yeshivas, which receive government funding in the form of transportation assistance and money for security guards.

But the fight for secular education at Orthodox yeshivas has been periodically derailed — by secular private schools concerned about intervention in their curricula, by backroom deals like the ones mentioned in the emails and by a news cycle focused on anti-Semitic violence in December, the same month the city released its report. Now, the push has been stalled by the coronavirus pandemic.

This protracted battle began after a group of these parents and students filed a complaint with the city in 2015, alleging that yeshivas do not adequately teach subjects like math and English. They contend Hasidic yeshivas violate state laws which require that nonpublic schools provide education that is “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools.

The newly public emails illustrate that de Blasio was more involved in negotiations than previously thought, calling Orthodox leaders on June 29, including Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the head of PEARLS, a group opposed to government mandates about the amount of secular education taught in religious schools.

A staffer of de Blasio’s told the mayor to make sure Zwiebel called State Sen. Simcha Felder (D-Borough Park) and then-Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Long Island.) Zwiebel was supposed to urge them to support the mayor’s bid to stay in charge of the city’s schools, an issue that had come up in a special session of the state legislature. If the senate opposed mayoral control of the schools, the staffer told de Blasio, “spending for non-public schools” would be “jeopardized.”

De Blasio replied to that email and asked for more background from staffers. Karin Goldmark, then a senior education policy advisor to the mayor and now an employee of the Department of Education, responded to the mayor, saying that the city “would not issue a report this summer (though we previously said we would” and that when the city did issue a report, “it will be gentle and will cite progress (assuming progress continues). We have not said that we won’t make findings, but we have gently hinted at that.”

Later that day, the state senate approved a two-year extension of mayoral control.

And when the city’s Department of Education did release its report, in December, the main finding — only two out of 28 yeshivas were considered to provide a “substantially equivalent” secular education — was buried on page 13 of a 15-page letter.

Zwiebel was named to the mayor’s task force on reopening schools last week.

“This is hardly a smoking gun. Every one of these emails was thoroughly examined by the Department of Investigation months ago,” wrote the mayor’s press secretary, Freddi Goldstein, in an email to the Forward. “The only thing they convey was an intention to avoid taking cheap shots before the facts had come in. They show no delay in our review and explicitly state we care about high standards for students.”

Yaffed, a pro-secular education group founded by former yeshiva students and parents, called on New York State Attorney General Letitia James to launch an investigation into the favors exchange in a press conference Monday, and asked that Zwiebel be removed from the mayor’s task force.

“Four-and-a-half years were wasted on appeasing yeshivas when the city could have — and should have — taken its legal and moral responsibility to the children seriously,” said Naftuli Moster, the head of Yaffed during Monday’s press conference.

The state Board of Regents was expected to vote this spring on more specific requirements for how nonpublic schools teach secular subjects. A state Department of Education official said at the end of March that the office “cannot establish timelines for the completion of these steps at the present.”

Molly Boigon is an investigative reporter at the Forward. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @MollyBoigon

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