Sep 24 • 30M

Secular Intolerance of Religious Jews

Guest: Jason Bedrick

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Larry Bernstein
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Larry Bernstein

Welcome to What Happens Next. My name is Larry Bernstein.

What Happens Next is a podcast which covers economics, finance, history, politics, religion and current events.

Today’s session will be on the secular intolerance for religious Jews.

Our speaker will be Jason Bedrick who is a Research Fellow at the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Jason is also the author of the book Religious Liberty and Education.

The New York Times had a recent 5-page story about the inadequacies of NYC Yeshiva Schools.  This two-year investigation concluded that the students in the most religious schools had inadequate English skills because their classes are taught in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic.

The New York Times concluded that these Yeshivas do not serve the public interest because the kids graduate with few job prospects and little earnings power which is unfair and unjust.

New York State provides funding for the schools and therefore, they argue that the Yeshivas should be coerced into a state mandated curriculum.

Jason plans to rebut the New York Times accusations, and he will explain the animosity particularly by Jewish secular progressive leaders with the most religious Jewish Hasidic sects.

Jason believes that parents should decide how their children are educated and that we should be tolerant of those that choose a religious life.

Buckle up.

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Let’s begin with Jason Bedrick’s opening remarks.

Jason Bedrick

Topic: Secular Intolerance for Religious Jews
Bio: Author and Research Fellow at the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation
Reading: Religious Liberty and Education is here

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Opening Remarks:

The New York Times has waded into the controversy over yeshivas in New York. Last Sunday, they released the results of a two year investigation looking at a certain subset of Orthodox Hasidic yeshivas. The vast majority of Orthodox schools are teaching secular studies, but a subset of Hasidic schools that are focused primarily on religious instruction and have about 90 minutes or less a day of instruction in English, language arts, and math.

Essentially the case that they make is public money invites public oversight. The Hasidic yeshivas are performing very poorly as measured by standardized test scores. And they are graduating students who are lacking the basic skills that they need to compete in modern society and dooms them to lives of poverty and dependency. Therefore the government must intervene.

The New York Times relies essentially on anecdote and innuendo, instead of hard data to make their case. We'll start with funding. We're talking about $250 million, for 50,000 students, about $5,000 per pupil per year. And most of those funds are actually for non-instructional purposes, for school lunches, transportation, security. Very little, probably between $1000 and $2,000 per pupil, is plausibly tied to instructional purposes. Let's compare it to the public school system. The public schools are spending about $31,000 per pupil.

What about test scores? The New York Times entirely ignores the Regents exams.

The Regents are the exams that all high school students have to take, if they're in the public system and most private school students. The yeshivas perform on the Regents, you'll see that 19 of the top 20 average private school scores in New York's English Language Arts exam were the yeshivas.

They find that a small number of the schools are failing. They point to nine in particular where everybody failed. They don't mention that the rabbis in those schools are not happy about taking the tests. It's a requirement to receive certain government funds, and there's no incentive for them to do well on the test. And so they tell the students you can just fill in the circles and you can come back to real learning and not worry about these government regulations.

If the government should intervene, you have to tell a plausible story that those students would actually be better served by intervention. These are students that are living in homes where Yiddish is the primary language. English is a second language. So let's compare those students to the English language learner students in the public school system. There are 155 schools in New York City alone in which less than 1% of the ELL students were performing at grade level on the 2019 English Language Arts exam. In more than 95% of New York City's public schools, at least two thirds of the ELL students failed to perform at grade level.

There was no evidence that the public schools would be doing a better job serving these students.

I think at the core of this is this question of dependency, are these schools failing to provide the children with an education that will allow them to become self-sufficient adults? And what the New York Times does is it says that the poverty rates in certain neighborhoods in New York: Williamsburg, Borough Park, and Flatbush are higher than the city average. That's true. You really shouldn't be looking at poverty rates because poverty rates are distorted by family size. The average number of children per households in the United States is just over two, but for Orthodox families, it is 6.5 children.

The poverty rates are going to be significantly higher because poverty rates are calculated based on family size.

Those statistics are distorted. What you really want to look at is income. According to the 2021 Pew Survey, the Orthodox Jewish community outperforms the rest of society. About half of Americans earn below $50,000 per year, among Orthodox Jews, it's only about a quarter.

What about those earning more than $150,000? That would be 8% of the general population, 26% of Orthodox Jews. Modern Orthodox median income is $188,000 per year. Hasidic Jews had a median household income of $102,000 per year about twice the national average.

There just is no case that they are not prepared to operate in the modern economy.

At the core of this is really a fundamental disagreement over the purpose of education. For some people, education is about economic value. It's about getting a good job. Others, it's about status. It's about being able to get into an Ivy League school, and that's fine if that's how people want to pursue their education, but there has to be room for people who believe that at the core of education is passing on traditions to your children, having a relationship with God, forming your character, not only to produce good workers or even good citizens, but to produce good people, good friends, good neighbors. Education is about preparing children for adulthood in their community. And in this case, schools are doing exactly that.

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