ALBANY -- State education officials plan to move forward slowly with proposed rules aimed at ensuring private schools provide an education “substantially equivalent” to that in public schools after an unprecedented flood of public comments raised concerns with the proposed regulation.
The proposed regulation is effectively at a standstill as state officials continue to work with interested parties on revising it, and the Board of Regents seeks to mitigate concerns raised by the religious and private school communities.
State officials’ have proposed rules to clarify a longstanding law that requires all non-public schools in the state to provide a curriculum that covers the same core subjects as in public schools. But the proposed rules have stirred a backlash among private schools and the faith communities they serve.
The state Education Department received over 140,000 public comments on a proposed regulation that outlines a process for school officials in local school districts to review whether private schools within the district provided an equivalent education.
The volume of comments alone were an indication to the state Education Department and Board of Regents that they should approach potential changes carefully.
“That is more than I have ever seen in 13 years in the state Education Department, far more than I have ever seen,” Interim Commissioner Shannon Tahoe said at Monday’s monthly Board of Regents meeting.
The latest proposed regulation follows an earlier one that was turned back by state courts because of failure to follow the proper administrative procedure.
Private school and religious leaders are arguing that the proposed regulation oversteps and infringes on parental and religious rights.
Education Department staff summarized the major themes of the thousands of complaints. The comments expressed concern that the regulation would negatively affect private schools, forcing them to comply with burdensome requirements and diminishing their ability to offer families a unique educational setting.
The comments also raised questions about whether local school districts had the expertise and resources to conduct reviews of private schools and whether relying on local districts to conduct a review would create inconsistent enforcement across the state. Many comments pointed out that public schools have an inherent conflict in reviewing the private schools within their boundaries -- private schools that compete with public schools for students.
Tahoe said department staff would continue to discuss the regulations with both the public and private sectors of education as they worked toward new changes to the proposed regulation.
“This is difficult, this is hard, and this is going to be a process,” said Tahoe, adding that it would be “prudent” to seek more input from the education field. “We have to think through this delicately.”
While at least one board member said it was time to “stop kicking the can” and take action, other members appeared more content with moving forward cautiously as state officials seek to walk a tight line between enforcing the legal requirement while respecting the religious faith of private school families across the state.
But the Regents also signaled they didn’t plan to back off the statutory mandate to ensure students in private schools receive an education deemed “substantially equivalent” to those in public schools.”
“Collectively, public schools and non-public school are part of one umbrella,” Chancellor Betty Rosa said. “And we have to make sure that everything we do is about educating all children – and all means all.”