New York City stalled the release of a report critical of the schools as the mayor sought the political support of Orthodox Jewish leaders, city investigators found.
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Four and a half years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration received a complaint that thousands of children at Orthodox Jewish yeshivas across New York City were being denied a basic education, including instruction in reading and writing English.
Finally last week, after years of delay, the city released the results of its drawn-out investigation: Of 28 schools surveyed, just two met state education standards.
The central question then is why, instead of moving swiftly to investigate the allegations and protect these children, the de Blasio administration slow-walked the inquiry. The report by the Department of Investigation and the special commissioner of investigation for the New York City School District offers one explanation.
The agencies asserted that administration officials in 2017 agreed to delay the release of an interim report on the largely Hasidic schools as part of a campaign to secure political support for mayoral control of the city’s schools.
The Department of Investigation, which looks into misconduct in city agencies, said it couldn’t determine whether Mayor de Blasio had personally authorized the delay, and it did not allege that the mayor had violated the law. But it concluded that the administration had interfered with the Education Department’s investigation into the yeshivas. And the Department of Investigation said the mayor “personally participated in conversations with at least one state senator and Orthodox community leaders about their broader concerns regarding oversight of yeshivas and how those concerns related to the extension of mayoral control.” The local and state officials involved were not named.
While the mayor dithered, children suffered. Years passed before city school investigators saw the insides of the classrooms where former students, teachers and parents said children weren’t learning basic skills.
Yeshiva officials were treated with kid gloves, allowed to put off visits by investigators even as some former students said they graduated unable to write their names.
The conclusions of the new report are careful, and narrowly drawn.
The agencies said the 2017 agreement to delay the release of the interim report had “little to no substantive effect” on the progress of the inquiry or its conclusions. They found no criminal wrongdoing. And they cited other reasons for the delays in the city’s investigation into the yeshivas, like a change in state regulations over how to evaluate nonpublic schools, and what they called an “accommodating approach” to conflicts with the yeshivas.
De Blasio administration officials dismissed the Department of Investigation findings. “There’s no ‘there’ there,” a mayoral spokeswoman, Freddi Goldstein, said in a statement, noting that the delayed interim report wasn’t ready for release in 2017. According to the Department of Investigation, the report was held back because the city had managed to visit only six of the schools at that point — hardly a reassuring defense.
Some former city officials said the investigation into the yeshivas was made toothless by political considerations from a mayor with close ties to the leaders of an influential bloc of voters.
Young Advocates for Fair Education, the group of former yeshiva students, parents and teachers that filed the 2015 complaint, has rightly called on the city to broaden its inquiry to include the 275 yeshivas serving about 110,000 students across the five boroughs. That’s the right thing to do given that nearly all yeshivas in the small sample selected for review were found to be failing their students.
Even without the political horse-trading, the politics surrounding the de Blasio administration’s deep reluctance to bring the force of law to bear on New York’s Orthodox communities is clear.
The mayor has consistently courted support from ultra-Orthodox leaders, who hold sway with a powerful voting bloc.
He loosened restrictions on a circumcision practice that has led some babies to contract herpes.
He was slow to issue fines when some yeshivas flouted health department orders to bar unvaccinated children from classrooms, even as a measles outbreak took hold in Brooklyn’s Hasidic communities.
Nobody’s vote is worth endangering the health and welfare of thousands of vulnerable children. The mayor should take the findings of the investigation to heart and move aggressively to bring city oversight to Orthodox schools.
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