ALBANY – The state Supreme Court has struck down the “substantial equivalency” guidelines for private schools that were released by the state Department of Education in November.

The Education Department did not follow correct procedure when enacting the guidelines, according to a decision dated Wednesday by state Supreme Court Justice Christina L. Ryba.

The state Constitution and State Administrative Procedure Act set forth a process for creating a new rule versus adding interpretation to an existing rule. The court determined that the new guidelines, which set a schedule and process for evaluating private-school academic instruction, constitute a rule and not interpretation.

“The court finds that the mandatory language dictating when the reviews will begin coupled with the language that insists that ‘all’ schools will be visited as part of the process constitute clear rules…” the decision stated. “Therefore the court finds that the new guidelines are ‘rules’ that were not implemented in compliance with the SAPA and are hereby nullified.”

The guidelines established a timeline for non-public schools’ instruction to be inspected  by officials from the local school district, who would then report to the state education commissioner. State law requires that academic instruction in private schools be “substantially equivalent” to instruction in public schools.

The decision responded to several lawsuits brought by Jewish, Catholic and independent organizations.

The Department of Education is reviewing the court’s decision to determine its next steps, department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said.

‘Tragedy for all children’

While private school organizations applauded the decision, an advocacy group that has been at the forefront of the fight to increase secular education at ultra-Orthodox yeshivas called the decision “a tragedy for all children.”

Naftuli Moster, the founder and executive director of Young Advocates for Fair Education, said in a statement that the guidelines were “reasonable and essential, not an intrusive overreach of the government.”

“Removing the revised oversight signals to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas that they can continue business as usual and fail to provide basic instruction in math, English, science, history, civics and other subjects that are keys to a sound basic education,” Moster said. “Elite private schools put their own annoyance about an occasional inspection over the future of Hasidic children — and now thousands suffer.”

Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, one of the organizations that sued, “applauded” the decision. Avi Schick, an attorney for the organization, said in a statement that the decision prevents the Education Department from transforming the relationship between the state and private schools.

He said it was a “fundamental misperception” that that state, and not parents, sets educational and religious guidelines for children.

“The tens of thousands of parents who choose to send their children to yeshivas are proud of the more than 100 years of quality education and countless successful graduates they have produced,” Schick said. “Our schools look forward to continuing that record of accomplishment.”

The New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents, which also sued, said in a statement that it was pleased by the court’s decision.

“We’ve prided ourselves on going above and beyond state academic standards,” Executive Secretary James Cultrara said. “Parents have always chosen our Catholic schools because of that rigor and they can remain confident in the strength of our schools going forward.”

Mark Lauria, executive director of the New York State Association of Independent Schools, which brought one of the lawsuits, said the coalition of schools appreciated the decision.

“While the 192 NYSAIS member schools are happy that the ruling will allow them to continue to create world-class educational programs for their students, NYSAIS also recognizes our responsibility to work with our colleagues in the public sector to help ensure that all children, throughout the state, are provided with a high-quality educational program,” he said.

The organization encouraged state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to review unaccredited schools when there are credible complaints of substandard education, instead of reviewing all schools.

from Rochel Leah Goldblatt, Rockland/Westchester Journal News