New York State is taking a step back from a controversial proposal that would give public school districts greater oversight of what private institutions teach.
The state Education Department, instead, announced this week that it will reach out to independent schools for further discussion on the issue. That decision comes after independent schools like Canisius High School, Park School and Nichols School rallied in opposition against the recommendation that local districts conduct a more thorough review of the curricula at independent schools to ensure that their academic instruction is “substantially equivalent” to that at public schools.
Local school boards would have the power to make that determination. But education policymakers in Albany were flooded with more than 140,000 public comments from across the state in anticipation of a decision being made last fall by the Board of Regents, the Education Department’s governing body.
“The department appreciates the thoughtful feedback received on the proposed regulations related to substantial equivalency,” interim Commissioner Shannon Tahoe said in a prepared statement. “The department will continue its review of the comments and, based on the breadth of comments received and the varying views expressed, the department will re-engage stakeholders for further discussion on this important issue.”
Among the concerns were that the regulations were unnecessary, vague and posed a risk to the independence of private schools. “Nonpublic schools play a critical role in our education system and the public feedback related to the proposed regulations demonstrates that we must take a thoughtful and measured approach to this work,” Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa said in a prepared statement.
The state has had a long-standing policy that private schools provide education that is substantially equivalent to that of the public schools, but traditionally has been relaxed on the issue. The proposed changes, however, came after critics have long complained that some ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools downstate are not teaching enough secular subjects. The state, as a result, proposed that new independent schools be reviewed within three years of operation. Existing private schools would be reviewed by the end of the 2022-23 school year, with regular inspections thereafter.
A review could include a closer look at teacher competency, as well as what subjects are being taught and how many units of each subject students are required to complete.
The New York State Association of Independent Schools – which represents 192 private schools including several in the Buffalo area – contended that its members don’t need that kind of scrutiny and filed a lawsuit earlier this year forcing the state to provide a public comment period on the proposed changes.
“I think the strong reaction from the private and independent schools has caused the state to pause at the moment and reevaluate their thinking on it,” said Eric Yarwood, executive director of the Education Collaborative of Western New York, a coalition of 14 area private schools. “I’m hoping, as they continue to look at this whole concept, that they involve all the stakeholders in the conversation before they make a determination – if any – about it,” Yarwood said.