DeVos with students at the Manhattan High School for Girls on May 15, 2018 (U.S. Department of Education)
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is on her second day of a two-day trip to New York City, stopping by an “elite yeshiva” for girls on the Upper East Side on Tuesday and visiting a yeshiva in the Rockaways today.
There are no public school visits on her schedule; NYC’s public school system is the largest in the county, with over 1 million NYC students (when previous Education Secretary Arne Duncan made his first appearance in NYC, he visited a charter school and two public schools).
Education Secretary @BetsyDeVosED left the Manhattan High School for Girls after about four hours. @Azi and I both shouted the same question: when/are you going to visit a NYC public school? DeVos continued to smile and got in the car.
— Lindsey Christ (@LindseyChrist) May 15, 2018
After a number of reports that ultra-Orthodox schooling has been failing students, especially boys, NYC began an investigation into allegations of educational neglect at dozens of yeshivas. The city’s probe began in 2015, and some yeshiva critics are asking why it’s still ongoing after three years—a DOE spokesperson told the Times last month that there is no timeline for completion.
Naftuli Moster, an advocate for yeshiva education reform, told Chalkbeat on Tuesday, “The fastest growing Jewish denomination, the Hasidic community, provides little to no secular education to their boys (while most Hasidic girls do get a decent education). We urge Ms. DeVos to visit real Hasidic boys’ schools as well.”
A former yeshiva student, Yossi Newfield, described how he felt shortchanged in a recent interview with the NY Post. Noting how his father attended Harvard and became a doctor, he said his experience was vastly different, “If the teacher … didn’t want to teach or was bored, they would put on the same ‘Pinocchio’ video.
Newfield added, “It’s very hard when you’re 23 to start learning [multiplication]. Had I learned this at a young age, it would have been second nature.”
Last month, the NY State budget passed with an amendment that, as WNYC reported, some feel waters down current yeshiva standards: “It replaces subject area requirements like ‘math’ with more general frameworks like ‘number sense’ to ‘solve real world problems.'” Another former yeshiva student “said that he completed his studies at the age of 18 and used the ‘Hooked on Phonics’ program to learn how to read and write in English, since the language of instruction was in Yiddish.”
The Manhattan school was recommended to DeVos by Agudath Israel of America, a NYC-based group that promotes school choice for Jewish communities. Agudath Israel backed her nomination and has reportedly worked with DeVos for years.
Agudath met with DeVos in March 2017, and afterward, she said, “I applaud Agudath Israel for their leadership and commitment to providing their community with access to educational options that meet the academic and religious needs of their families. Agudath is a terrific partner and advocate for their families, and I welcomed today’s discussion. I look forward to continuing to work with Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Jewish community and all who believe that every child, regardless of where they live or their family’s income, should have an equal opportunity to a quality education.”
Before the visit to Yeshiva Darchei Torah on Wednesday, DeVos spoke to the Alfred Smith Foundation, which supports Catholic charities. She said, “I know very well there are powerful interests that want to deprive families their God-given freedom. I know that those sycophants of ‘the system’ have kept legislators here from enacting a common-sense program that would open options to thousands of kids in need.”
As I shared this morning: I’m learning it’s not popular for someone in my position to point out hard truths – to admit the current system isn’t serving every student well. But I didn’t take this job to win over editorial boards and trend on social. I took it to serve students.
— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) May 16, 2018
The operating budget for the NYC Department of Education is $24.3 billion, which covers things like pay for administrators and faculty; textbooks and supplies; school buses; heating and cooling; etc. In addition, $1.9 billion is set aside for charter schools and $78 million is for yeshivas and parochial schools. An estimated 57,000 students are enrolled in yeshivas in New York City, the Times reports.
“An investment in public education is an investment in the future of our city and country. Secretary DeVos is welcome to visit NYC public schools and see the phenomenal work we’re doing in the nation’s largest school district,” the NYC DOE said in a statement.
A U.S. Department of Education spokesperson promised DeVos would visit NYC public and charter schools in the future.
Earlier this week, the NY Times reported that members of the U.S. Department of Education were “marginalized, reassigned or instructed to focus on other matters” because they were investigating “possibly fraudulent activities at several large for-profit colleges where top hires of Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, had previously worked.”