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Local private schools fight proposed oversight by public school districts

Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

The leaders of prominent Western New York private schools like Nardin Academy and St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute are speaking out against a proposed state policy that would give public school districts oversight of their institutions.

The New York State Education Department (NYSED) proposed the new regulation in May based on state law “that students attending nonpublic schools receive substantially equivalent instruction” as their peers in district schools.

“It seems like the original concern was around some yeshivas [Jewish religious schools] around New York City,” said Jeremy Besch, Head of School at The Park School in Amherst. “This really feels like a gigantic hammer of a solution to a tiny nail of a problem.”

There has been longstanding concern and legal battles in New York City as to whether some ultra-Orthodox yeshivas fail to provide “substantially equivalent” education in secular subjects like English, math and science. However, Besch and other leaders of area private and religious schools are arguing that a statewide solution isn’t the right fix for a localized problem.

“What this rules change suggests is an unnecessary redundancy that is not helpful for either The Park School community or for the Amherst School District, who would become responsible for our oversight,” said Besch, speaking during a press conference organized by State Senator Chris Jacobs (R-60th Senate District) Tuesday.

Similarly, Interim Head of School at Christian Central Academy, Dr. Stuart Chen, said he’s sure the public school district in Williamsville doesn’t “need or want this extra administrative burden put upon them.”

Besch, Chen, Nardin Academy President Marsha Sullivan and St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute President Christopher Fulco all said their schools already adhere to rigorous accreditation processes that are signed off by NYSED.

“Why would we foist this upon our public district colleagues?” Chen said. “It is something that just does not make sense.”

The proposed policy change recommends that new independent schools be reviewed within three years of operation and for existing schools to be reviewed by the end of the 2022-23 school year “or as soon as practicable thereafter and regularly thereafter.”

WBFO contacted both Amherst Central Schools and the Williamsville Central School District for comment, but we have not yet heard back. NYSED also declined WBFO’s interview request.

Senator Jacobs said he is strongly opposed to the proposed regulation, which he has called an “assault” on the independence of private and religious schools.

“We’re here today to say to the State Board of Regents and State Ed, please take a step back. Be more thoughtful about this,” Jacobs said Tuesday. “This is an example really of a solution in search of a problem, where there really isn’t a problem.”

In addition to the administrative burden the proposed change would likely place on both public districts and the private institutions that would be required to report to them, several of the independent school leaders raised concerns that deeply-rooted philosophical differences would complicate public oversight.

“Our schools conduct practices and have curricula and philosophies and missions that are intentionally different than the larger, more traditional educational models,” said Besch. “Should this rule change occur, the public districts would not be prepared to grant the oversight that we’re talking about here, nor have a full understanding of what happens in our individual institutions.”

Fulco, of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, said students at his school receive not only rigorous instruction in all subject areas but also religious education and spiritual guidance—which they would not receive in public schools.

“I value the fact that as parents, we have choices, and we can choose schools that are rooted in the Catholic faith,” Fulco said.

Dr. Chen, speaking for Christian Central Academy, agreed. He said that if representatives from public school districts charged with oversight didn’t share the foundational Christian values his school uses to drive curriculum-related decisions, “it inherently risks compromising the foundational underpinnings of what we are about.”

Another aspect of the private schools’ opposition to subjecting to oversight by public school districts is the argument that they consistently out-perform their public peers, which The Buffalo News’ Editorial Board highlighted in its recent stance against the proposed regulation.

“If it was an added value, I assure you that we would be open [to the policy change] as members of the Western New York educational community,” said Nardin Academy’s Sullivan. “There is no piece of our ability to deliver excellence in education that can be served [by it].”

A public comment period on the proposed rule remains open through September 2nd. The New York State Board of Regents—NYSED’s governing body—is expected to consider the policy change this fall.

Despite the serious concerns raised about the potential change on Tuesday, Dr. Chen also offered a lighthearted challenge to his district counterparts.

“On the one hand, I almost feel like saying, ‘Ok, you want to come in and check us out? Bring it on! Bring it on.’”

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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