The New York Times printed a very long article about Hasidic schools in New York which took in roughly $1 billion of pubic money over the last few years, and claimed that they failed to provide a basic education on purpose. The Times mocked the terrible hiring practices at the schools and essentially urged the government to stop funding them until they improved their practices, as the paper released the article just two days before the New York State Board of Regents met on the matter.
The Board of Regents took notice and proposed tougher regulations aimed at these ultra Orthodox schools.
A deeper review of the Times article shows that the paper may have reached the wrong conclusion – that the schools require MORE money to succeed, not less.
The Times made its conclusion clear on the front page when it wrote “where other schools may be underperforming because of underfunding and mismanagement, these schools are different. They are failing by design.“
The article made it appear that the Jewish schools are actually OVERFUNDED, calling out “$1 Billion. Amount of government money collected in the past four years by Hasidic boys’ schools, even though they appear to be operating in violation of state laws guaranteeing students an adequate education.” It mocked the hiring practices of the schools, writing “Often, English teachers cannot speak the language fluently themselves. Many earn as little as $15 an hour. Some have been hired off Craigslist or ads on lamp posts.” The article added that the schools “mostly hire only Hasidic men as teachers, regardless of whether they know English. One former student said he once had a secular teacher who doubled as the school cook.“
The article made it appear that the schools are just pocketing the money, especially as it highlighted that one of the Hasidic school networks “controlled over $500 million in assets,” and showed a picture with accompanying text that one school building “takes up a city block.“
But a deeper dive of these observations paints the opposite picture.
Small Subsidies Per Yeshiva Child
The $1 billion sounds like a huge headline figure going out to failing private schools. The accompanying Times’ commentary spelling out that the sum covers four years is perhaps lost in the momentary shock. It equates to roughly $250 million per year used to support 50,000 boys, or roughly $5,000 per student per year. That figure covers transportation, food, child care and special ed classes, in addition to general education.
By way of comparison, New York City has an annual budget of $38 billion for 919,000 students (a steadily declining number that was over 1 million just two years ago). That’s over $41,000 per student. It’s a gap of more than $36,000 per child compared to yeshiva boys.
The article hinted about this enormous gap in a few spots without sharing the math.
It first attributed the basic fact as a defense offered by the Hasidic schools, making the small subsidy seem biased: “They [the Hasidic schools] denied some of the Times findings,… that the schools receive far less taxpayer money per pupil than public schools do.” The qualified speaker tainted the observation.
Only on the fourth page of the Times’ article did the Times state two critical facts clearly: “Hasidic boy’s yeshivas receive far less per pupil than public schools, and they charge tuition.” Public school students get more than 8 times the funding as these yeshiva boys, as detailed above. The fact that these private schools charge tuition needs further elaboration as well.
Enormous Yeshiva Tuition Bills Require Penny Pinching
The boys’ schools don’t operate on a budget of $5,000 per student. Parents pay tuition as noted by the Times.
These ultra Orthodox families typically have very large families. For example, on the fifth page of the article, the Times mentioned a family with six children. It also mentioned Naftuli Moser who started an advocacy group to improve secular education in yeshivas. The Times did not write that Moser is one of 17 children.
Consider the tuition bills for these families. If the yeshivas charged like the public schools, six children with a funding gap of $36,000 each would mean a tuition bill of $216,000 per year for the family. For Moser’s family, the annual tuition bill would be $612,000!
Needless to say, these schools cannot operate with the generosity afforded to public school teachers backed by powerful teacher unions. The yeshivas need to hire teachers on a budget to match the incomes of these large Hasidic families. The overall school budget is a fraction of the $41,000 spent per pupil in public schools. The schools also make accommodations for parents who cannot afford full tuition for all of their kids, by having the fathers teach at the school, accounting for Yiddish-speakers teaching English as featured in the article.
And yes, teachers do double-duty, including teaching and acting as the school chef. It keeps the school budgets down and the tuitions more affordable.
Wealth Amidst The Poverty
The Times article made the Hasidic community appear to be sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars and then taking a billion dollars from the government. Much of the wealth in the Hasidic community revolves around real estate holdings in Brooklyn. Educating nearly 100,000 boys and girls – roughly 1/10th the size of New York City’s public school students – requires many buildings. The dense communities where the Hasidim live drive up demand and therefore the prices.
This is a community whose wealth – to the extent there is some – is mostly illiquid. It is in the very homes and schools they live in every day.
Both the Times’ opening conclusion that Hasidic schools are neither underfunded nor mismanaged, and the timing of the article’s release before the Board of Regents meeting, had the desired impact of the city threatening to cut funding to the schools. As reviewed above, that is ill advised. Why take away transportation, food and other subsidies to a poor community already struggling?
More money needs to flow into the Hasidic school system, not less. That does not mean simply writing checks without accountability. The system needs to pivot to address the plain facts that yeshiva students are growing rapidly and now account for almost 10% of New York City students, as the public schools continue to shrink.
A few suggestions:
Bilingual Yiddish schools. New York City has 545 bilingual schools. They are mostly in Spanish, but also include French, Russian, Chinese, Bengali and Haitian-Creole. It is time to invest in distinct Yiddish schools in coordination with the Hasidic community. The schools would need to be segregated by gender and timed to allow for religious private school either in the morning or afternoon, switching off for different groups in the area to fully utilize the facilities.
Employ/ Pay Secular Teachers Directly. For those parents that do not want to use bilingual Yiddish schools, the city should pay for qualified secular teachers directly. As public school teachers are being retired due to the shrinking public school student body, reassign the teachers to teach secular subjects in these yeshivas.
Should the community fail to adopt these investments in secular education, punitive measures should be considered. However, immediately jumping to threaten poor Hasidic schools that get minimal funding is counterproductive and mean-spirited.
If we truly want all students to be educated and to succeed, we need to examine the situation honestly and invest appropriately. The New York Times and Board of Regents seemingly have chosen the opposite path, and acted abusively to a large impoverished minority. If it is simply a coincidence that these secular bodies opted to target ultra Orthodox Jews, I leave it to each reader to consider.