Communities of faith should be able to pass on their traditions, but must still meet basic state educational standards.
By Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers
Is it permissible for private schools in this country to disregard state standards of proficiency in English, math, and U.S. history? This is the question at the heart of a recent wide-ranging investigative report from The New York Times. The article focuses on the Hasidic educational system in New York, whose students almost uniformly fail state standardized tests in reading and math. A key nub of controversy is the fact that Hasidic schools in New York receive massive public financial support—$1 billion over the past four years—even though school administrators are openly defiant of the state’s requirement that they educate their students to a bare minimum in secular studies.
Hasidic leaders and parents have reacted with fury to what they regard as an egregious assault on their way of life—and on their right to educate their children in their traditions. Where the Times points to malfeasance and illiteracy, Hasidic community members see rigorous Jewish education and a continuation of cherished values and ways of life.
We understand and sympathize with the desire of Hasidim to educate children in the traditions and texts that lend meaning to their community. The ability to preserve distinct religious traditions and transmit them to the next generation is, after all, a core component of the ideal of cultural pluralism that the United States upholds. Hasidic Jews are deeply suspicious of state intervention in the private school systems in which they educate their children. They fear that exposure to secular norms will pull their kids away from long-established communal traditions. And this fear is not far-fetched, given that one of the goals of public education in this country in the 20th century, especially when involving immigrant communities, has been to advance the project of assimilation and integration into the American mainstream, which historically has meant the imposition of mainstream Protestant and white cultural norms.