ALBANY — The state Education Department plans to restart its public engagement efforts as it revisits creating new rules to determine whether private schools are providing students a “substantially equivalent” education to that of public schools.
Department staff intend to host six virtual meetings across the state – focusing on communities with a substantial presence of non-public school students – during which they will gather input in what new substantial equivalency rules should look like, according to a presentation during Monday’s Board Regents meeting.
The public engagement sessions, which will follow a similar model as virtual sessions hosted on creating school reopening guidelines, mark state officials’ latest efforts to clarify how independent and religious schools should be assessed under a statutory mandate they offer instruction “at least substantially equivalent” to what is offered in the local public school districts in which they are located.
A previous attempt to set new rules led by former Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia, which created a process for public school districts to assess the substantial equivalency of private schools, was shot down in the courts under procedural issues. While those rules were never implemented, they still sparked massive backlash within the private school community, and a subsequent set of proposed rules received over 140,000 public comments. The Board of Regents kicked the proposed rules back to SED staff with instructions to conduct more stakeholder engagement back in February.
During discussion at Monday’s meeting, SED staff said they were more comfortable with moving forward with stakeholder engagement virtually after conducting public forums on reopening schools. They also indicated they would find ways to engage people who have an interest in the rules but aren’t able to engage online.
Some of the regents cautioned state officials to not water down the rules, highlighting people they have met who did not receive a basic education at the private schools – in some cases, religious – they attended as children. One of the board members noted a student he knew that had to retake an accelerated high school curriculum to prepare for medical school entrance exams.
“I’m concerned about the people who are writing me about the horrible education they got,” said Regent Josephine Finn, noting the student said he had not been taught “reading, writing or arithmetic.”
“At some point, we’ve got to admit, as he put, some people (in non-public schools) are flouting the rules,” she said. “We have a duty to do our very best to investigate that.”
While the regents said they welcomed the conversations, they reasserted their role to ensure all students receive a sound basic education. They said it should be possible to ensure that while respecting the role private schools play in many communities.
“I think we can and have the right to indicate that there are certain skills that are basic to being able to contribute (to society) and find a life plan that works for you and still be respectful of the community you were brought up in,” said Regent Frances Wills.