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Education reform at orthodox yeshivas threatened by NY state decision: critics

A newly state-approved accrediting agency for yeshivas is facing blowback from skeptics who worry it’ll be used to bypass quality checks such as school visits or standardized tests.

Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational branch of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, runs one of eight accreditors selected by the Education Department to authorize private and religious schools in New York.

Schools that receive the green light from an accrediting agency don’t have to submit to local reviews or otherwise prove they’re teaching subjects like reading or math.

But a yeshiva reform advocacy group says it’s skeptical that “an agent of the Chabad Hasidic sect which operates yeshivas that proudly refuse to offer secular education” will crack down on academics. Their concerns come amid statewide efforts to bolster oversight of religious schools that advocates worry could be undone by what they see as a loophole.

“Are we putting a new system in place that’s going to look the same,” said Beatrice Weber, executive director of Young Advocates for Fair Education, “where again we have another layer of bureaucracy, but still the lack of transparency and another way for the schools to get away with not actually teaching their students?

“That’s our biggest fear and our biggest concern,” Weber said.

The national accreditation board of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch was founded in 2000 to promote an accreditation process unique to yeshivas and Jewish day schools.

Schools are asked to conduct a “self-study” based on standards set by the board, submit to a peer review that includes a school visit and develop a strategic plan. The criteria include whether students are learning English language arts and math concepts such as algebra and geometry.

Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch has not formally accredited any schools in New York yet. It would not comment on the criticism and instead referred the New York Daily News to its procedures as published.

“General Studies requirements vary from state to state,” Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch wrote in its handbook, “and it is expected that a school entering into an accreditation protocol meets all civic and regulatory mandates.”

Weber suggested that the group’s connection to Chabad, which is affiliated with a Brooklyn yeshiva already found noncompliant with education law, Oholei Torah, “does not seem to bode well” for the organization’s ability to evaluate schools.

With nearly 2,000 students, Oholei Torah is known as the flagship school of the Chabad movement and graduates the “vast majority” of its leaders, according to the school’s website.

The connection to Chabad has raised questions among critics.

“The whole idea of accreditation is not to provide a loophole but rather to provide an extra layer of accountability,” said Weber. “But when you have an organization that’s been affiliated for decades — like for as long as they’ve existed, they’ve been affiliated with these schools — knowing that these schools were not teaching English,” Weber continued, “it’s a joke.”

At a hearing this week on the state education budget, a lawmaker from the city questioned the state’s decision.

“It also runs yeshivas that have failed the City of New York’s evaluation. So if they fail in their own schools, why should they be accrediting anybody’s schools?” said State Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan.

“If you’re flunking yourself, I don’t think you should be evaluating others in our system.”

Education officials declined to comment on how Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch was selected, but said they worked with national accrediting organizations and their criteria.

To become an accreditor, the state Education Department asks applicants whether they’ve been approved by the National Council for Private School Accreditation or another accrediting agency, according to a blank application reviewed by the Daily News.

Organizations are asked to provide documentation, and specify how long their accreditation is good for and when was the last review. There’s also a section to list potential conflicts of interest between applicants and religious or private schools in New York.

Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch is a member of the National Council for Private School Accreditation, according to the latter’s website, though ties between the organizations appear to run deeper. Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, the longtime director of Chabad’s central education office, served as president of the group from 2009 to 2011, when he pushed back against legislation in private education.

“Accreditation challenges schools to improve education effectively from within,” Kaplan said during an interview at that time. “This process of accreditation is the best way to improve education, because the school itself sets its goals and establishes a strategic plan. We then evaluate to see if they’ve honored their own stated objectives successfully. That’s much more effective than legislating from outside.”

Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch was not the only religious accreditor approved by the state, which also included organizations with ties to Seventh-day Adventists and Lutherans. The list also includes the New York State Association of Independent Schools that for decades has accredited local schools that churn out some of the highest-achieving graduates in the state.

“NYSED reviews all applications for accreditors with the same rigorous standards, regardless of religious affiliation, as required by law,” said JP O’Hare, a spokesman for the Education Department.

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