Last April, lawyers for private kindergarten through grade 12 schools found themselves defending, before a state trial-court judge, private and religious schools’ right to operate. The lawyers, representing Jewish, Catholic and nonsectarian independent schools, were challenging sweeping new State Education Department edicts that would effectively force private schools to perform as de facto public schools.
The department’s new mandate would require local school district boards of education to oversee and inspect most private and parochial schools within their respective district boundaries, using undefined “objective criteria” to determine compliance with the state law that nonpublic schools must provide “substantially equivalent” instruction to their students.
Lack of compliance could mean closure. Public school districts, then, would become the arbiters of whether their competitors — private and religious schools — can remain open, a blatant conflict of interest.
The SED initially imposed these unprecedented mandates on private schools as “guidance” — that is, as a series of bureaucratic memoranda and checklists. The state Legislature passed no law. But the Board of Regents later rubber-stamped new regulations from the department.
If the department succeeds in this unprecedented attempt to control nonpublic education, it will virtually eliminate what makes private and independent schools different, and it will diminish First Amendment freedoms for hundreds of thousands of families, particularly regarding the free exercise of religion.
Peter Murphy is senior fellow for education at the Empire Center. This piece was adapted from City Journal.
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