Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Letter to NY State Commissioner: please allow Hasidic youths to have a chance at a better education

This moving letter, reprinted with the permission of its author who asked for his name to be removed, was sent to NY Commissioner of Education Betty Rosa and top NYSED officials.  It was sent shortly after he had participated in a online discussion of stakeholders, whose views were solicited to give feedback on state regulations to enforce the NY state Substantial Equivalency law.  The message points out how the lack of a basic secular education threatens not only the life chances of Hasidic youths, but also the health and safety of their communities. 

For more on this issue, see recent opeds by Naftuli Moster of Yaffed in the Washington Post and Gotham Gazette, the latter entitled What Happens in Williamsburg Doesn't Stay in Williamsburg.

Dear Commissioner Rosa, Deputy Commissioner D’Agati, Assistant Commissioner Coughlin, and members of the Board of Regents,

I also want to thank you for addressing this important issue as well as echo and elaborate on many of the points made by others.

I was raised in the Hasidic, Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and attended a Hasidic yeshiva until the age of 15. In my Hasidic elementary and middle school (cheider), after an intense day of religious studies, we had only an hour-and-a-half of very rudimentary English and arithmetic. In Hasidic high school, during my thirteen hours in yeshiva daily, we exclusively studied religious texts such as the Talmud and Torah and no secular studies whatsoever.

Throughout all my years in a Hasidic school, I was never taught any science, history, geography, government, art, literature, computers, health or any math beyond arithmetic.

The school I attended and its disregard for a secular education is not in any way an isolated case. It is the universal norm among Hasidic boys schools in New York. (The girls generally do receive a better secular education, since in ultra-Orthodox Judaism they are forbidden from studying the Talmud and cannot become rabbis.)

The result: I could not write a paragraph in English despite being the third generation in my family living in New York City. I did not know how to add simple fractions despite being a top student in my class and attending a 13 hour school day.

I was fortunate and was eventually able to drop out of my Hasidic yeshiva in pursuit of a secular education. However, that came at the immense social and emotional cost of losing my childhood friends and being viewed as a black sheep within my family and childhood community.

Others in the community are not as fortunate.

Go into a doctor’s office in my childhood neighborhood of Williamsburg, and you will see Hasidic men having to call their wives on the phone to confirm their English date of birth or to act as translators so they can understand the doctor’s diagnosis.

My bright Hasidic friend had to call me periodically when he began working in construction to help him with simple calculations when he was ordering equipment.

So many of my family and childhood friends know virtually nothing about the history of their country. They’ve never heard of the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, or the term “civil rights.” They live in one of the world’s most diverse cities and still know nothing about the history or culture of any of their non-Jewish neighbors.

But the lack of basic scientific knowledge has even more dire consequences.

My stepfather sadly passed away from Covid-19 in March. He was 42 years old, with no prior health conditions; it was a terrible loss. After his funeral, I was shocked to see many attendees crowding together indoors and with no masks. These were people I love and respect, people who are generally caring and responsible, people who value life and each other. 

Watching them, I realized that with no basic understanding of science it truly can be unintuitive for someone to follow the guidance of medical experts. If you’ve never before heard the term “biology”, “cell” or “microscopic”, any baseless conspiracy theory about the virus can make just as much sense as a scientific one. I realized that the lack of secular education, in addition to causing severe community economic hardships, unfortunately is also partially responsible for such devastating loss of life.

During the recent stakeholder engagement meetings, I felt that my voice and my story, and those of so many others affected by the lack of secular education within the Hasidic community, were not sufficiently relayed.

While it is easy to focus on positive stories and also important to focus on improvements, no true change can be achieved without explicitly acknowledging and addressing the problems. For regulations to be effective, the wrong they are hoping to remedy cannot be glossed over. Only by acknowledging the mistakes of today can we hope for a better, improved tomorrow.

I hope that you will take the stories of hardships faced by so many raised within the Hasidic community, the facts about the continued educational neglect within Hasidic yeshivas, and the spirit of hope for positive, meaningful change into account when making decisions about the new regulations, so that no child will continued to be deprived of basic skills they need for their future and well-being. 

Sincerely, [name removed]

Monday, December 28, 2020

Please give so we can continue our work for education equity, smaller classes & student privacy in 2021

And a recap of a difficult, extraordinary year...

Dear friend --- 

2020 was a difficult year for Class Size Matters as it was for many non-profits. If you support our mission of smaller classes, so that all students no matter what their background can receive the help and feedback from teachers they need for an equitable opportunity to learn, please make a tax-deductible donation now. We were unable to hold our usual annual fundraiser in the spring because of the pandemic, so we really would value your contributions at this time.

Some highlights of our efforts this year: In February, standing-room only hearings were held at City Hall on the necessity to lower class size in the public schools. We used that opportunity to urge the City Council to allocate specific funding for that end. Parents, educators, students and top officials, including Kathleen Cashin, Board of Regents member, testified that this would provide the transformational change that NYC students need and deserve, especially as class sizes are out of control in many neighborhood schools and remain 15-30% larger on average than in the rest of the state.

And then the pandemic hit in March, causing a plunge in city tax revenues and proposals by the city to slash the education budget.

Our efforts quickly pivoted to trying to prevent damaging cuts to critical programs and drawing attention to wasteful DOE spending. We were the first advocates to blow the whistle on the DOE’s plan to fully fund school bus companies to the tune of $1.1 billion per year – even as buses had been sitting idle for months in parking lots and garages across the city.  Because of the consequent uproar, the city renegotiated these contracts, leading to savings of at least $200 million.

We also brought attention to the huge class sizes that students were subjected to while engaged in online learning, as well as the risk to their privacy.   DOE has encouraged schools to use hundreds of commercially-prepared ed tech programs, with no evidence they complied with the provisions of the NY state student privacy law that we had pushed for and that had come into full force in January 2020.

If you would like us to continue to advocate for students to receive the full academic and emotional support next year that they will need more than ever before, rather than double down on online learning, as the Chancellor has proposed, and that DOE should cease spending millions on wasteful contracts and unnecessary programs, please show your support by donating here, or by sending a check to Class Size Matters, 124 Waverly Pl., New York NY 10011.

Hoping you and your families have a safe and happy New Year, Leonie

P.S. You can check out last week's “Talk out of School” podcast interview with parent activist Shino Tanikawa about the changed middle and high school admissions policies for next year and what they will and won’t accomplish. Please listen if you can, and let me know what you think. You can also subscribe to the podcast at that link or at Apple iTunes, Google, or Spotify.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The five myths of Mayoral control: my testimony before [postponed] Assembly Education hearings

The Assembly Education hearings on Mayoral control that were supposed to be held today were postponed last night because of snow. Given that the hearings were to be held remotely this is hard to understand. Perhaps the Assemblymembers wanted to enjoy a snow day, which unfortunately, the Mayor is not allowing NYC kids to experience. 

Here and below is the testimony I wanted to give and will hopefully be able to give some day in the future.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Josh Karan on Mayoral control

Tomorrow on Dec. 17, the NY State Assembly Standing Committee on Education will hold hearings on Mayoral control tomorrow, starting at 10 AM.  You can view the hearings live streamed here.  Testimony is by invitation only. 

Josh Karan was a member of the Parent Commission on School Governance, whose 2009 report is posted here.  Other documents created by the Commission, as well as summaries of the proposals of other organizations at the time, are posted here and in this google drive folder, in case you'd like to check them out.  Josh wrote the following about this issue.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Patrick Sullivan on the DOE's acquisition of Reliant bus company: Why the PEP should vote no.

Update: The Panel for Educational Policy approved the contract 8-5, with only the borough appointees and Tom Shepherd, the appointee chosen by parent leaders, abstaining.

Patrick Sullivan, a former member of the Panel for Educational Policy, sent this email to current PEP members in opposition to the DOE contract with a shell non-profit, run by DOE, that would acquire the bankrupt Reliant bus company.  For more on this issue, see Sue Edelman's article yesterday  in the New York Post and the editorial today.  The PEP is voting on this contract tonight.  Livestream here.

From: Patrick Sullivan <>
Date: Sun, Dec 13, 2020 at 7:08 PM
Subject: Vote no/abstain vote on NYCSBUS contract due to pension risk
To: <>, <>, <>, <>, <>, <>, <>, <>, <>, <>, <>


Dear Panel for Educational Policy Members,

I am writing to express my concerns about the contract with the new NYCSBUS entity for school bus services.  I ask you to abstain or vote against the contract.

The contract is part of a two-pronged program to create a DOE-controlled busing company.  One component is the new non-profit intended to buy Reliant from its parent MV Transport.   The non-profit has a board controlled by the Chancellor and his appointees.   The non-profit will get Reliant's assets including buses owned outright and leases for both buses and bus depots.   The non-profit will also be responsible for Reliant's pension obligations.  The pension is a private one for the union's members and funded by all the bus company employers.  Like most pensions, it's underfunded.  The responsibility to make up any underfunding is with the employers.   When NYCSBUS buys Reliant, it becomes responsible for the pension.  Their share of the underfunding is about $140 million.  

I do not believe the DOE has been either comprehensive or candid in explaining the risks involved in their plans:

NYCSBUS fails to deliver services - the company only exists on paper right now so a number of scenarios could derail operations including inability to staff management, labor strife, equipment failures or pandemic restrictions.  Whether the buses run or not, NYCSBUS is obligated to ensure pension benefits to employees enrolled in the plan.  If NYCSBUS stopped operating entirely, the DOE would inherit its obligations to the pension members.  

Other bus companies go bankrupt -- the union's pension is a  private multi-employer plan where all the bus companies contribute to the union's plan to cover their employees.   When one of the private companies go banktrupt, their obligations get spread to the remaining solvent companies.  Here's the troubling scenario according to testimony to Congress by the US Chamber of Commerce:

The Multiemployer Pension Plan Amendments Act of 1980 (“MPPAA”) amended ERISA to address employers leaving these plans by creating withdrawal liability, which requires an employer to pay its share of any unfunded vested benefits when the employer leaves the plan. If an employer cannot pay its withdrawal liability, for example because it is bankrupt, those liabilities are shifted to the remaining employers, which created the “last man-standing rule.” (

A series of bankruptcies could result in the bulk of the pension obligations landing on the DOE.  Meeting them would deplete classroom funding.

Underfunding of pension increases : interest rates are at record lows.  The gap between assets and payments to pensioners could grow dramatically leaving the DOE obligated to siphon operating funds for increased pension payments.

DOE and City Hall staff are asserting that the NYCSBUS non-profit is a separate entity from the DOE.  Technically that's true.  But that does not mean the DOE would escape responsibility for the  pension obligations of the non-profit.   Because the Chancellor controls its board of directors, any sort of regulatory or judicial ruling would likely find the DOE ultimately accountable financially for NYCSBUS.

The 5.5 year $900M contract you are asked to approve would allow Reliant's owner to walk away from all these risks and transfer them onto the DOE without appropriate compensation.   Rejecting the contract would likely scuttle the sale of Reliant and open up better alternatives.  One would be to create a new bus company that hired a management team, staff to operate and leased its own buses.  The new company could scale up as it demonstrated success.  While the new company would still share obligations to keep the pension solvent, the magnitude of the risk would be dramatically lower and, most important, the deep pockets of MV Transport and its wealthy owners would continue to back the pension through the coming period of uncertain state and city budgets.

Thank you,
Patrick Sullivan

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Gov. Cuomo: please call off the SHSAT, absolutely critical especially during a pandemic.

The letter below was sent to Gov. Cuomo on Monday via his webform; feel free to send your own thoughts on the matter.  

November 23, 2020

Dear Governor Cuomo, 

We, the undersigned organizations and individuals, write to request the issuance of an Executive Order to suspend the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT) for the specialized high schools in New York City. 

The Hecht-Calandra Act requires that admissions to the specialized high schools be solely and exclusively determined by scores on the SHSAT, which is administered by the NYC Department of Education usually in late October/ early November every year.  Nearly 30,000 students take the SHSAT for approximately 5,000 seats across 8 specialized high schools. The test is administered on campus at these schools.  Obviously this year with the pandemic and particularly now with the increasing infection rates, in-person testing is infeasible and the DOE has not announced how it plans to administer the test. 

The Mayor hinted at offering the SHSAT online at the weekly radio address last week. However, not every student has access to an adequate device or reliable internet connectivity, making the online option discriminatory. In addition to the inequitable access to the digital platform, many of our students are traumatized by the pandemic, having lost loved ones to the disease, facing a new economic reality resulting from parental job loss, or living with the anxiety of a parent who is an essential worker. These traumas disproportionately affect historically marginalized students.

Because the Mayor does not have the power to change the admissions to the specialized high schools, we call upon you to issue an Executive Order suspending the SHSAT this year and allowing the Chancellor of the NYC DOE to develop an alternative method of admissions to the specialized high schools. And given that our estimate of the costs for test administration is approximately $3 Million per year, suspending the SHSAT is also prudent in the face of the fiscal crisis.  We believe this is the only equitable path forward.  



Alliance for Quality Education

Class Size Matters

Coalition for Asian American Children & Families (CACF)

Community Education Council District 14

Community Education Council District 16

Community Inclusion & Development Alliance

Education Council Consortium


El Puente

Families for Real Equity in Education (FREE)



MORE-UFT (Movement of Rank and File Educators)


NYC Opt Opt

S.E.E.D.S., Inc. <>

Teens Take Charge