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Investigate de Blasio for reprehensible yeshiva ‘deal’

This week, publicly released emails from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office revealed that City Hall interfered in the city Department of Education’s investigation into whether several dozen Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox yeshivas were providing at least the minimum standard of education required by law.

According to the emails, first reported on by the New York Post, Mayor de Blasio appears to have personally orchestrated a political deal in which the final DOE report would go “gentle” on the yeshivas. In exchange, Simcha Felder, at the time a crucial swing vote in the State Senate, would allegedly drop his opposition to extending mayoral control of schools.

In December, the city’s Department of Investigation issued a damning report accusing the Mayor’s Office of “political horse-trading” in capitulating to Felder and his key ally, former State Senate Republican majority leader John Flanagan.

As a former Corporation Counsel, chief attorney for the city, I have rarely seen anything as disturbing as this. Mayoral control of schools is important and far superior to the old system, but its continuation should have never come at the cost of denying tens of thousands of New York children even minimal education in secular subjects.

The DOE initially launched their investigation in July 2015, after 52 former graduates and parents of students filed a formal complaint that their schools were not meeting the requirements set out by New York State’s substantial equivalency law, under which all nonpublic schools must at least provide the bare minimum education required of public schools.

A complaint of this magnitude, reflecting allegations affecting multitudes of children, should have compelled immediate action. I am quite familiar with the challenges, frustrations, and compromises involved in the legislative process. But throwing the education of schoolchildren under the bus was no compromise.

Meeting substantial equivalency amounts to providing around three to three-and-a-half hours of instruction per day in subjects such as English, math, science, and social studies, which the overwhelming majority of private schools (and public schools) easily exceed. However, former graduates of several Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox yeshivas allege they received little to no education in these general subjects at their private schools. The DOE report released in December, the very same one the Mayor and his staff conspired to weaken, largely confirmed these claims.

To make matters worse, while these schools are private in their administration, they receive millions of dollars in public funds, including from the city.

I believe the office of the New York’s Attorney General should investigate the events exposed in these emails. Those found responsible for this reprehensible deal should not be in positions of public trust.

Finally, as a longtime supporter of progressive and Jewish community causes in New York, I have been dismayed by the scant attention this issue has received at the highest echelons of the Jewish community.

Victor Kovner was Corporation Counsel of the City of New York, the City’s chief legal officer, under Mayor David N. Dinkins, a founder and longtime board member of J Street, and served for many years on the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, concluding as its Chair.

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