Monday, April 16, 2018

A Satmar 'Victory' and Public Schools

Rabbi Aharon Teitlebaum - Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel
Two wrongs don’t make a right. One might be tempted to use statistics about New York City’s public schools to bolster the argument made by the Satmar Rebbe.  He argues against offering secular studies in their schools. He might point to those statistics and ask, what good is such a program? Why should they even consider it? And add that their own schools do a far better job educating their students than public schools do.

That argument has no sway with me. Because we are talking about two different populations.

One population is Chasidic. Their children come from homes where education is stressed as one of the highest of Jewish values.That helps motivate their children to learn. The public school population on the other hand consists to a  significant extent of inner city schools whose students come from homes where education is not a high priority – if at all. I would not be surprised that the numbers are pulled way down by those inner city schools. From VIN
Under the auspices of the United States Department of Education, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has been testing fourth and eighth graders nationwide on reading and math since 1966 in order to assess schools’ progress and improve education.
But reports from the NAEP’s 2017 tests have shown both city and state public schools have demonstrated little improvement over the past few years, with only 22 percent of fourth graders earning reading scores that reached the test’s “proficiency” level, compared with 27 percent nationwide. 
Eighth graders had similar scores, with just 24 percent achieving the “proficient” ranking, compared to 31 percent nationwide.  In both grades, black and Hispanic students’ scores trailed those of their white peers by a range of 23 to 30 points.
According to a New York Post editorial, the NAEP report demonstrates that despite the highest per student spending in the nation, New York State is failing its public school students.  
There are really two issues here. One issue is whether secular studies do in fact benefit students materially - which of course segues into the decision by Satmar Rebbe to not provide those studies. 

The other issue is how well universal public education as implemented now serves the public interest. 

Satmar Schools

Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel has expressed his opinion loudly and clearly. His comments are, however, are misleading. He has declared victory against those who wish to force Satmar to offer secular studies. The New York State legislature has granted  Satmar schools an exemption from the state requirement of private and parochial to offer a secular studies program equivalent to public schools. His praise for State Senator Simcha. Felder who spearheaded this effort in the state legislature has been effusive. Calling it a victory over Gzeiras HaShmad (A government decree to convert Jews). He compared all current attempts to enforce that rule to the antisemitic attempts by Czarist Russia to force secular studies upon Yeshivos in his country over a century ago. 

History records that those Yeshivos had shut down rather than submit to those changes. What the Satmar Rebbe fails to mention is the huge difference between what happened then and what is happening now: the differing motivations. Differences recognized by the philosophical heirs to the very Yeshivos that closed down at that time. 

Today the vast majority of these Yeshivos offer a secular studies programs. Most of which is equivalent to what is offered in public schools. And even those that aren’t quite up to that standard, still provide a variety of secular studies that Satmar refuses to offer. 

Claiming that this is a victory over Gzeiras HaShmad is therefore quite ingenuous. He has tried to bolster his argument by claiming the courses required by the state include ideologies that are anathema to Judaism - some of it being actual Apikursus. That too is disingenuous. While there may be some courses that might be taught in an unacceptable manner. Clearly they don’t have to be. Otherwise none of the Yeshivos that offer them - would. And then there is the slight little detail that Satmar girls actually do have a secular studies program. Do they teach their girls Apikursus?

I dare say that if their boys had the same curriculum that their girls do, there would be no controversy.

Some might argue that allowing the government to get their foot in the door – even in legitimate ways is a slippery slope to being forced to eventually teach Apikursus. The problem with that kind of thinking is that most Yeshivos have for decades been providing secular studies to their students without any problem. Obviously they were not worried about it at the start and have been proven right not to worry..

What about the claim by the Satmar Rebbe that their Chasdim are happy with their lot... and that they produce good, highly productive citizens despite the lack of any secular studies program?  One need only read one letter (translated from Yiddish) to understand why this is at best an exaggeration. It was written in the form of an open letter to the Satmar Rebbe by a Chasid that actually loves his lifestyle, his community, and his Rebbe. And does not want to leave. 

The writer has a relatively decent paying job byway of his own determination and self education. But he notes that because Satmar lacks any kind of formal secular education, he was left unprepared for the real world. He was denied the kind of income that the educated professionals he works with have via their education.Why was he short changed? Consider that his salary is well above the typical salary made by most other Chasidim in his community. And yet he is mired in debt and can barely support his large family. 

He accuses the Rebbe in less than subtle terms of being out of touch with his Chasdim because of the relatively lavish lifestyle provided for him by his community as the Rebbe of Satmar. He does not begrudge him those perks. As the Rebbe of a major Chasidus, he deserves to be treated that way. But it does keep him out of touch with the financial realities his Chasdim face every day

I don’t know if this Chasid speaks for all Satmar Chasidim. But I’ll bet dollars to donuts that he is not alone. Which is exactly why some expatriate Chasidim have tried to get Satmar to do what other Yeshivos do - and offer a secular studies program. Same as they do for their own girls.

What do other Satmar Chasdim think about all this? I don’t know but I suppose that ignorance is bliss. I’ll bet many of them simply believe that their Rebbe knows whats best and are satisfied living their lives in poverty - using the welfare system as a source of income. heir Rebbe said this was a victory over Gzeiras HaShmad. So it must be true.  Except that it isn’t.

Public Schools

The second issue is the state of public school education. The above statistics speak to the failure of public school education as it now stands. After decades of continually throwing money at the problem it argues mightily for a radical change. One that will direct motivated students into academic schools and re-route unmotivated ones to vocational schools. Vocational schools that will have only one major academic subject: English.  Reading, writing, and speaking English is probably the primary tool for succeeding at a decent job these days. Outside of that training for vocational skills should be their mandate. I think parochial schools should offer vocational schools or programs too.. 

Vouchers that could be applied to all types of academic and vocational schools or studies would help solve a lot of the problems the above mentioned statistics indicate. Parents could then choose the school that’s right for their children instead of sending them to a neighborhood school that at best limits their options. 

The argument by teachers unions that public schools must take everyone while charter, private and parochial schools can pick and choose who they want. would lose some of its luster. 

One thing seems certain. Public education as it stands now is not working.If anything says throwing more money at the problem doesn’t work, the above mentioned statistics do. It’s time for a change.