Following an 18-part investigative series in The New York Times alleging various forms of maleducation and malfeasance in New York City yeshivas, the city began implementing regulations targeting these Hasidic Jewish day schools.
These included requiring certain classes (currently not taught at yeshivas) to be taught for a specified length, allowing the New York City Public School System to declare yeshivas “non-compliant” and send parents to jail for truancy for sending children there, and allowing New York to investigate any private school after a complaint from any individual (not just from parents, teachers, or students of yeshivas).
Last month, a New York district court struck down these regulations, but the state has filed a notice that it is appealing the decision.
Hasidic community leaders have complained that the Times reporters, who are now under consideration for a Pulitzer Prize, presented a profoundly biased and inaccurate portrait of their schools.
An extensive review of one recent entry in the Times series suggests that the rabbis are right. To make its case against the yeshivas, the Times plays fast and loose with the facts, relies on innuendo, and repeatedly violates its own professed journalistic standards, such as failing to disclose its sources’ conflicts of interests and inappropriately anonymizing sources that it had previously named publicly.
In late December 2022, the Times published an article titled “How Hasidic Schools Reaped a Windfall of Special Education Funding.” Reporter Brian Rosenthal explains that the Orthodox community, through its lobbying arm, Agudah, lobbied for reforms to streamline the special education hearing process and, in 2014, according to one Agudah leader, “got everything we wanted.” Since then, requests for aid have more than tripled, with half of such requests now coming “from areas with large Hasidic and Orthodox populations.”
Rosenthal alleges that “dozens of schools in the Orthodox community have pushed parents to get children diagnosed with disabilities,” which would make the students eligible for additional state financial support. This money does not go directly to the schools, but rather to Orthodox-owned-and-staffed special education companies. As more and more money flows from the state to the Hasidic community, the system is breaking under administrative strain, and, according to one hearing officer, “It’s affected the access to justice of all, and swamped the cases of children who attend public schools.”
It’s a plausible and powerful story, but almost every detail of it withers under scrutiny.
For starters, the overarching story that Rosenthal tells is based on a policy sleight-of-hand. The 2014 special education reform implemented by Mayor Bill de Blasio exclusively concerned cases dealing with “Carter” reimbursements, i.e., cases when parents of students with severe disabilities who can’t be served in public schools petition for funding to send their children to specialized private schools. These reimbursements cannot be used at traditional yeshiva schools, nor does the Times piece relate the story of such reimbursements. Rather, the piece concerns appeals for additional aid made by parents who send their children to traditional yeshivas.
Rosenthal partly acknowledges this, writing, “While Mr. de Blasio’s policy changes were initially intended to ease path of parents seeking tuition funding, The Times found that the most common request now by far is for an ill-defined assistance that is only offered in New York City: ‘special education teacher support services,’ which providers liken to tutoring.”
The reader is to infer that the rise of support service requests was an unintended consequence of de Blasio’s change, when no policy connection actually exists. Indeed, other states that qualify these services in departments of education or public instruction—such as Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, and Wisconsin—don’t list them as “special education services” at all.
Still, have “dozens” of Hasidic schools systematically pressed parents to appeal for services in order to staff up with outside aides or tutors, as the Times report alleges? We can only judge from the five examples given, each of which has a journalistic, ethical, or empirical flaw.
First, there is the Chabad Girls Academy, which an anonymous mother said sent her an email in 2020 saying that her daughter qualified for autism treatment and providing her with information to give to a doctor, even though according to the mother, the child was not autistic. The Times granted the mother anonymity on the grounds that “openly criticizing Hasidic leaders can lead to being shunned by family and friends.”
But the mother, Beatrice Weber, has left the community and openly criticized it in the pages of the Times, both with an opinion essay and as the lead example in a story published three weeks earlier. (The piece begins: “Beatrice Weber wakes up most mornings afraid that her son’s Hasidic Jewish school is setting him up to fail.”)
The Times violated its own ethical guidelines to not anonymize a previously named source, which obscured the fact that its anonymous mother was the director of YAFFED, a nonprofit that has been highly critical of yeshivas and pushed for additional state regulation. The Times also omits the fact that the Chabad Girls Academy currently serves only 13 students, all of whom have experienced behavioral or academic difficulties in traditional Jewish schools, with a staff of 12.
Second, there is the Tomchei Tmimim school, which reportedly told a woman that her son could not attend unless she persuaded the city to pay for a full-time aide. The mother did not think this was necessary. School administrators told The Daily Signal that the student was routinely violent and that they did not believe they could guarantee the safety of his peers without full-time personal supervision. The mother, who has also left the community, is currently engaged in a custody battle over her child.
The Times’ confidentiality policy tells its reporters to grant anonymity to people only when it is absolutely necessary, “especially if they form a disputed account, or are potentially damaging to one side in a court case.” It also urges its reporters to take special care to ensure that anonymous sources “are genuinely independent of one another, not connected behind the scenes in any kind of ‘echo chamber.’”
In this case, the mother has retained as her lawyer Elana Sigall, who is quoted by name criticizing the yeshivas and is described as “a former top city special education official, who now visits yeshivas as a consultant.” The Times did not mention that Sigall has been a high-profile critic of yeshivas and is producer of a forthcoming documentary criticizing them.
Third, there is Luria Academy, where administrators considered asking parents to appeal to the city for additional special education funding and then decided not to. The Times describes Luria as “a school that serves some Orthodox Jews.” So do public schools. Luria is a self-described “progressive” school, not a Hasidic or Orthodox one; and, therefore, it has no evidentiary value when it comes to the conduct of yeshivas.
Fourth, according to the Times, “nearly half” of the 1,500 students at the Chabad-affiliated Oholei Torah school are “are classified as children with disabilities, records show.” This was news to Oholei administrators, whose records, supplied to The Daily Signal, show that of their 1095 pre-K through eighth grade students, only 225 receive special education services. Twenty percent is approximately in line with the city average of 19%.
Their best guess as to how the Times got their “nearly half” figure was that it counted all students who had at some point been evaluated for special-needs services, including students who were no longer receiving services or who had never received them, rather than students currently receiving services. The Times did not inform readers that it was comparing the city’s apple to a yeshiva’s bag of oranges.
Similarly, the Times reported that students with disabilities increased from 12% to 59% at Yeshiva Beth Hillel of Krasna after de Blasio’s (irrelevant) reform. Krasna administrators say that only 18% of their students receive special education services, and that they shared documentation of this with the Times. They also noted that the Times sent their “59 percent” figure to the school on the afternoon of the Thursday before Christmas, asking for comment by 9 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 26. This made it impossible for the school to contact the Department of Education, which was closed, to try to understand how a third party could review their data and arrive at that statistic. The Times wrote only that the school disputed its figure.
These examples cast doubt on the validity of the newspaper’s key finding, that “at 25 of the city’s approximately 160 Hasidic yeshivas, more than half the students are classified as needed special education,” whereas in public schools, “one in five students is classified as having a disability.”
The most relevant number to the question of whether Hasidic students are overrepresented in special education is the percentage of Hasidic students who are classified as having a disability. The Times did not print that number. Specifically, community leaders from several schools claim the number of active users of special education/accommodations for people with disabilities sits close to 20%, while both the Times and Rosenthal directly refused to provide any comment regarding any number.
So, are Orthodox Jews gaming the special education system to enrich businesses in their community? The case rests on two personal anecdotes presented by sources who were anonymized in violation of the Times’ code of ethics, a school that isn’t Orthodox, and two schools that credibly dispute the figures provided by the Times.
Beyond that, the case rests on the newspaper’s analysis of the rise in special education hearings, “more than half” of which “came from districts that include the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Borough Park and Crown Heights—all heavily populated by Hasidic Jews—and Flatbush and Midwood, which are home to many Orthodox Jews.”
The problem is that these hearings are not a useful proxy for the use of special education services, given that acquiring special education status and services does not require such a hearing.
Why did Rosenthal choose to omit the actual number of students using special education services in New York City’s Hasidic yeshivas? Why did Rosenthal craft a dishonest narrative that pretends these yeshivas are using special education services at rates drastically higher than New York City’s public schools? Why cherry-pick anecdotes from those who hold disdain for the yeshivas and give ridiculously short windows for yeshiva staffs to defend against such incredible allegations?
At a time when violence against New York City’s Orthodox Jews has reached record highs, publishing such inflammatory yet poorly sourced accusations against a vulnerable minority group with such reckless abandon should be grounds for immediate expulsion from the Times, not consideration for a Pulitzer.
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