By Jill Colvin, DNAinfo Reporter/Producer
BROOKLYN — Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Borough President Marty Markowitz waffled Wednesday over who has responsibility for overseeing the failure of some Brooklyn religious Jewish schools to teach their students basic English, math and science.
As DNAinfo.com New York has been reporting this week, many Orthodox Jewish schools in Brooklyn — attended by more than 80,000 kids — offer limited instruction in non-religious subjects, or don't teach them at all, even though they're required to by law.
Asked during an unrelated press conference whether his administration was aware of the issue and planned to do anything to address it, Bloomberg seemed unsure about the city's oversight role.
"I don’t think our Department of Education has anything to do with it," he said.
"My guess would be it would be up to the state Department of Education. But we’ll be happy to check and see if they’re the ones that have the standards and have to enforce the standards for all the schools.”
According to a state DOE spokeswoman, it's up to the board of education in each of the state's school districts to make sure children attending non-public schools and being home-schooled are "receiving instruction which is substantially equivalent to that provided in the public schools."
The state requires all children to be instructed in English, math, science and physical education.
Guidelines published on the state DOE website make it clear that the the local superintendent — here, the city DOE — must investigate out-of-compliance non-public schools and, if the problem persisits, notify the state DOE.
"The superintendent [city DOE] should review materials and data which respond to the assertion and discuss with the officials of the nonpublic school plans for overcoming any deficiency," the guidelines state. "If a plan of improvement cannot be designed or if the superintendent judges that the program of instruction continues to be inadequate, the superintendent should notify the board that the nonpublic school program is not equivalent."
A city DOE spokeswoman said that a situation "regarding requirements" was brought to their attention about a year ago, but would not specify which schools were involved. The schools were found to be in compliance.
Bloomberg said he was concerned that children born in the city might struggle to read something as simple as a restaurant menu, as Hershy Gelbstein, 18, who attended a religious school in Brooklyn described in the series.
“Of course it’s concerning to me," he said. "How are you going to earn a living, you know?"
Pointing to a reporter, he then added bizarrely: "They’re never going to get your job. You are the one that doesn’t want them to learn because” they’ll be competing for the reporter's job.
Markowitz, meanwhile, refused to condemn the situation.
"It’s not for me to intervene in the priorities of education of religious institutions, whether they be Catholic or Protestants or Jews or Muslims or whatever it may be in any other religion, Buddhist and Hindus," he said.
He said he assumed the state required "basic education, and that's what they have to comply with," he said.
"But basic things, certainly English, to learn how to speak English, I would think we all share. And basic science and mathematics — basic," he said. "They may not go onto high algebra. And there should be some reasonable oversight on it, sure.”
The New York State Board of Regents, which oversees the state Department of Education, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.