State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia speaks with The Journal News Staff in White Plains March 18, 2019.
Carucha L. Meuse, firstname.lastname@example.org
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is not letting criticism or lawsuits deter her from enforcing a long-ignored state law requiring non-public schools to have a “substantially equivalent” academic instruction to public schools.
“I do think that’s my job,” she said Monday during a meeting with The Journal News/lohud editors and reporters at the news office in White Plains.
She added that critics may not understand the process, and that her department is continuing to work with private schools and others to explain the process and what schools may have to do to become compliant with the law.
“Nothing would be done overnight,” she said. “We are working… closely with all different groups to try to address some of their concerns.”
The state Education Department released long-awaited guidelines in November to revive enforcement of the “substantial equivalency” law. Under the law, public school districts are supposed to make sure that private schools within their boundaries are offering adequate academic instruction.
But the guidelines have faced a torrent of criticism, primarily from Orthodox Jewish and Catholic groups that object to inspection of their curricula by public agencies. Two lawsuits challenging the guidelines have been filed against the Education Department, one by a coalition of Orthodox Jewish organizations and the other by a group of 11 private schools.
School districts have until 2021 to complete initial reviews of private-school instruction. Elia acknowledged that the review process could be upended by the courts or the state Legislature. But until then, she said, “we’re still moving forward.”
Elia said that districts with large numbers of private schools, like East Ramapo and New York City, are advised to make a schedule to visit and review the curriculum at all the non-public schools in their boundaries.
If instruction at a private school is found to be lacking, districts can work with private-school officials to develop “guideposts” for making necessary changes at intervals, such as three and six months.
The Education Department has offered training to districts and non-public schools on the new guidelines.
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“We work with them,” Elia said. “We talk through it, make sure that they have multiple opportunities to contact … the non-public school to get their time scheduled and if that doesn’t work, there’s a process for what we do then.”
The new guidelines took more than two years to develop, Elia said. Different stakeholders were involved, including district superintendents and a commissioner’s advisory panel consisting of various non-public school entities.
“It wasn’t done with just a group of people in the backroom who hadn’t been in schools a long time,” she said. “We had a lot of input from all of our groups.”
She said everybody wasn’t happy with the results of the process. But, she said, “the reality is, we took what was in the law and we translated that.”
If private schools are reluctant to comply with inspections or recommendations, Elia said, public superintendents should keep talking to them and warn of consequences. In worst-case scenarios, parents could be told to remove their children from non-compliant schools.
But Elia said she was confident the process will work.
She said she has met with all concerned legislators and would continue to do so.
“If they called me for a meeting, I met with them,” she said.
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