Private Religious Schools Have Public Responsibilities Too

Communities of faith should be able to pass on their traditions, but must still meet basic state educational standards.

Picture showing green chalkboard with drawings of the Jewish star of David, the Christian cross, and the Muslim star and crescent.
Getty; The Atlantic

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.

In light of this understandable impulse to resist assimilation, some might say that the American way is to live and let live. Shouldn’t religious groups be allowed to educate their kids as they see fit? The only possible answer is “yes, but.” Yes, they should be allowed to immerse their children in a rich diet of traditional religious sources, customs, and habits of life. Yes, they should be allowed to have instruction in languages other than English. And yes, they should be eligible for the kinds of state support that private-school children have long received, including transportation and remedial- and special-educational services, in addition to programs, such as subsidized meals and after-school day care, for which all low-income children are eligible.

But no, they should not be able to receive government funding for their private educational system while flouting minimal educational requirements—including basic English literacy—that augment but don’t upend the community’s own educational norms. A basic education in math and English will not undo years and years of deep exposure to biblical and rabbinic sources. It didn’t have that effect in an earlier stage of these communities in the United States. When the United Talmudical Academy, the largest of the Hasidic educational systems and the focal point of The New York Times’ report, was first established by the Satmar rebbe in the mid-20th century, he insisted on a secular education sufficient to enable graduates to enter the workforce. There is no reason that such compliance with state educational mandates could not be combined with a strong Jewish curriculum as well today.

Although this is a story about Hasidic Jews in New York, it is no less a story about America. The country has promoted educational policies that have sometimes fostered integration and at other times supported those who oppose the integration of children of different religions, ethnicities, and races into a single culture and educational system. The first and most powerful expression of the integrationist impulse in the United States was the “common school” movement, founded by Horace Mann in the 1830s, which gave birth to the public school system as we know it. That original egalitarian vision of public education not only promised a decent education to every child in the nation; it also proposed to bring children of different backgrounds together.

The common-school movement always had its critics, including those who pointed to the “hollow hope” of desegregation and the denial of equal educational resources and opportunities to Black people and other racial minorities. Others, however, faulted it not for failing to fulfill its promise of integration, but for succeeding in that project all too well. Among the most vocal critics of this aspect of public education were Catholics, who objected to the way in which Protestants, who controlled the public schools in many parts of the country, used them to “Americanize” and essentially Protestantize the children of Catholic immigrants.

One way to escape the cultural hegemony of the “Protestant establishment” was to opt out of the public schools and send one’s children to private schools of one’s choosing. In 1925, the Supreme Court supported Catholic parents and schools by striking down an Oregon state law that banned private schools and made public education mandatory. In doing so, the Court explicitly endorsed the critique of assimilation, stating that the Constitution “excludes the general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.” Two years prior to that, the Court had sided with a Lutheran teacher who had claimed that a Nebraska law prohibiting instruction in any language other than English—in this case, Bible lessons in German—was unconstitutional.

Although the Court insisted that the legislature was limited in its ability “to foster a homogeneous people with American ideals,” it did not deny to the state the right to promote shared civic values. Indeed, it affirmed “the power of the State to compel attendance at some school and to make reasonable regulations for all schools,” both public and private, as the Supreme Court stated in 1923. And so the situation remained for decades, with a careful balance struck between state oversight and the right of parents to control their children’s education.

The pendulum began to swing in the direction of granting greater control over education to parents and subcommunities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then, it was not Jews but other religious and cultural subgroups, including African Americans and Puerto Ricans, who were resisting the established system, spurning the integrationist ideal and demanding oversight of their own educational systems. One such example was the community-controlled school board formed in 1968 in the neighborhoods of Brownsville and Ocean Hill in Brooklyn, which led to a clash between Jewish teachers and administrators and parents seeking to introduce an Afrocentric curriculum for their children. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled in the famous Wisconsin v. Yoder case that the Amish had a right to be exempted from the state’s compulsory-education law after the eighth grade. This was the first time the Supreme Court explicitly described the parental right to control education as a matter of religious liberty protected by the First Amendment.

From that point forward, the demands for greater educational autonomy for parents have grown, both within the public school system and in the expanding set of alternatives to public schools, including homeschooling and charter schools in addition to secular and religious private schools. A new coalition of parents of faith—Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Jews—has taken rise, bolstered by a powerful political movement of religious conservatives that rejects not only attempts to impose secular educational requirements on their children but any constraints on the right to live their religious lives as they see fit. The movement has been extraordinarily effective in pushing forward the principle of religious liberty as a central tenet of American legal and political discourse. One need only recall the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to permit prayer at public school events and require state subvention of religious education when public subsidies are made available to secular private schools.

As they have been in the past, schools are now again a prime battle site in America’s culture wars. Advocates of religious liberties, as well as opponents of teaching so-called critical race theory in public schools and proponents of the “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill in Florida, have sought to silence any mention of race or sexuality and demanded the right to opt out of any public-school classes that offend their sensibilities. In similar fashion, Hasidic parents in New York are asserting control over the education their children receive without having to submit to the “substantial equivalency requirements” that mandate minimal proficiency in English, math, and other secular subjects. Although these efforts have different aims, they are united by the idea that parents have the exclusive right to shape their children’s education.

But the need to uphold minimal educational requirements for all children is especially important given the crisis of democracy that this country is experiencing, and in particular in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection. The pendulum of political culture has swung too far to the side of a political and religious libertarianism that allows individuals and groups to advance their own view of this country and its institutions. Indeed, some wish to see it swing further: The most radical are seeking the abolition of public education and the complete deregulation of private education. Americans must work to push the pendulum back in the opposite direction, to rearticulate the ideal of a common good in which all share, as well as reinforce the values and institutions of democracy for which this country, at its best, stands.