The New York State Education Department (NYSED) has issued guidelines under which public school officials would inspect private schools to determine whether the education being provided is satisfactory. This stunning announcement has generated massive pushback from the private school community and promises to be an important test of private school autonomy.

The Guidance

An NYSED press release announcing the policy stated that “local public school officials have the responsibility to ensure that the education received by nonpublic school students is substantially equivalent to that received in district public schools. Substantial equivalency means that a program is comparable in content and educational experience.

According to the new guidelines, “All religious and independent schools will be visited as part of the process.” The reviews are slated to begin during the current school year. Going forward, “Superintendents or designees should plan to re-visit the religious and independent schools in their district on a five-year cycle.

After a public school superintendent or designee visits and reviews a private school for a determination of substantial equivalency, the local public school board will vote on that determination. If the school board votes that a private school is failing to achieve substantial equivalency, “the board will provide a reasonable timeframe (e.g., 30-45 days) for parents or persons in a parental relationship to identify and enroll their children in a different appropriate educational setting.” After that, “the students will be considered truant if they continue to attend that school.

Private School Response

The private school response has been resolute in rejecting the terms of the new policy. In a letter to New York State Commissioner of Education Mary Ellen Elia, the New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents declared its refusal to submit to the visitations by public school officials: “We write to inform you that the New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents, representing some 500 Catholic schools, rejects the recently released ‘substantial equivalency’ guidelines and is directing all diocesan Catholic schools not to participate in any review carried out by local public school officials.

Rabbi David Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America and member of the CAPE board, also expressed strong opposition to the new policy: “The notion that our schools have to provide an education that is ‘substantially equivalent’ to that provided in the public schools, as measured by the specific courses offered and the hours required to be devoted to those courses, is patently absurd. Parents who reach deep into their pockets, often at considerable sacrifice, to enroll their children in religious or independent schools do so precisely because they seek an education that is substantially inequivalent to that which is offered in the public schools. Any governmental regulation of how nonpublic schools go about their educational business must be done, if at all, with a light touch — not with the heavy hand New York State has displayed with its new substantial equivalency guidance.

Jim Cultrara, Co-Chairman of the New York State CAPE, offered the following statement in response to the NYSED guidance: “The parents who choose our schools can have great confidence in their academic rigor and while the state has a right to establish minimum basic secular education standards for all schools, the measurement of religious and independent schools’ performance against those standards must be consistent, objective and reflect the right of parents to choose a school that they determine is best suited to educate their children. Giving local public school officials the authority to evaluate and determine whether our schools can operate is simply unacceptable.

National Implications

As an article at observed, the new policy gives a private school’s local competitor – the public school board – the power to declare it educationally deficient. “Would anybody trust Microsoft with the power to determine if its competitors should be allowed to exist?” The new policy could be a bellwether for other states and is therefore being watched intently by friends and foes of private education across the country. Keep your eyes open for updates on this situation in future editions of CAPE Outlook.

article from the Council for American Private Education, January 2019 Outlook