Opponents of a state policy that would tighten oversight of private schools and force ultra-Orthodox schools like Kiryas Joel's to devote more time to secular subjects have bombarded the Education Department with tens of thousands of letters urging it to abandon the effort.
Several organizations representing Orthodox yeshivas posted form letters on their websites that are said to have fueled more than 135,000 comments in opposition - the bulk of the nearly 140,000 emailed comments the Education Department said it received by last Tuesday's deadline. One group alone - Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, or PEARLS - indicated that almost 86,000 letters were submitted through its site.
"The proposed regulations are in total opposition to my religious convictions and against our Torah adherence," read the group's form letter for yeshiva parents. "There is no way I will allow my children to attend any school complying with such regulations."
The Education Department had solicited public comments on its proposal to have public-school administrators review the curriculums of all private schools within their districts to ensure they are providing an education that is "substantially equivalent" to that of the public schools, as required by state law. The reviews are meant to verify that private schools are spending enough time on math, science, English and other subjects and force improvements if they aren't.
The state began the enforcement effort last year, but was forced to start over after a judge ruled it had skipped the normal steps for new regulations and would have to invite and consider comments. That decision came in response to separate lawsuits that groups representing Orthodox, Catholic and independent private schools filed in opposition to the policy. Catholic and independent schools opposed the mandate partly because it would mean letting public-school administrators judge their curriculums.
Orthordox community leaders see it as a violation of religious freedom and a threat to the traditional religious focus of their children's schools. Around 14,000 children attend Hasidic schools in and around Kiryas Joel.
An organization that has been campaigning for stronger core-academic instruction in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and backs the state's enforcement push also posted form letters on its website for supporters of its cause. It was unclear how many comments that group, known as Young Advocates for Fair Education, or YAFFED, had mustered.
Education Department officials said Monday that in addition to the flood of emails, they also received "numerous" paper comments on the proposed curriculum reviews. They said they plan to weigh all of the public comments, make any necessary changes to the regulations and hold another public-comment round if any substantial changes are made.
No timeframe was given. The department had said when it released the proposed regulations that it hoped to submit the final version to the Board of Regents for approval this fall.