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Survey? Oy Vey

Eytan Kobre

How could YAFFED promote such a farce?

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A

lthough the lawsuit brought by YAFFED against the Felder Amendment — legislation which allows chareidi schools in New York State to determine for themselves if their curricula meets state-mandated equivalency requirements — has been dismissed, readers shouldn’t miss out on some of the valuable material in the legal papers submitted in the case. One of these is an eight-page declaration submitted to the federal judge presiding over the case by Professor Awi Federgruen. The Charles E. Exley Professor and Chair of the Decision, Risk and Operations Division at Columbia Business School, he’s an expert in the area of applied probability and has edited some of the field’s leading professional journals.

The professor opines on a 2017 YAFFED report entitled NON-EQUIVALENT: THE STATE OF EDUCATION IN NEW YORK CITY’S HASIDIC YESHIVAS. He writes that based on YAFFED’s heavy reliance on this report in this lawsuit, he expected it to provide substantiation that New York City yeshivos fail to meet state educational standards.  But, he testifies, “it does not do that… [but instead] meanders among various topics that are at best tangentially related to” its claims. The report, he says, “suffers from several fatal methodological infirmities, devotes a majority of its analysis to topics that bear no relation to the issue of whether yeshivos comply with the relevant academic standards, and utterly fails to substantiate YAFFED’s claim that yeshivos do not comply with those standards.” He’s not a fan.

But he elaborates his objections, beginning with the report’s “survey” (quote marks are Prof. Federgruen’s) of alumni and parents regarding dissatisfaction with secular studies education at chassidic yeshivos, which is “what YAFFED relies upon for its negative conclusions about yeshivah education.” The report says the survey was distributed through social media, groups of yeshivah graduates and personal networks, and garnered a total of 116 responses — only 44 of which came from those who attended a yeshivah high school.

Thus, on the basis of no more than two responses per yeshivah, the report draws conclusions about a group of yeshivos that educates about 57,000 students annually and should thus be expected to have tens or hundreds of thousands of alumni. The survey sample appears to have “been ‘constructed’ in a haphazard and radically biased manner, through solicitation of ‘friends’ on social media.”

It’s “not much of a surprise,” the professor states, “that the Facebook friends of YAFFED and its executive director… share their worldview and dislike yeshivah education.” A survey conducted via social media is even more nonsensical in this instance, he observes, since the report itself acknowledges that the chassidic community doesn’t participate in social media or online forums to the extent other communities do.

The report does not share the questions asked, nor their format. Were they forced-choice — e.g., yes or no, or ratings on a scale, or open-ended ones that allowed those conducting the survey to draw subjective conclusions from the answers? We’re not told. There are reader contests on the kiddie pages of Der Yid that have more claim to professionalism than this.

Yet YAFFED and its high-powered legal team presented this “survey,” apparently with a straight face, to a federal court in Brooklyn in support of its lawsuit. If it were smart, YAFFED would’ve done better to mark the “survey” as its Exhibit A, proof positive of the academic deficiencies from which its executive director still suffers due to his long-ago chassidic schooling. Then again, what’s the excuse of the elite lawyers who submitted this farce on YAFFED’s behalf?

Professor Federgruen next takes up the report’s repeated references to chassidic poverty, which was presumably intended to make the case that community members’ substandard education renders them ill-prepared to earn adequate income to support their families. He acknowledges that differences in educational levels are, of course, a variable that helps explain differences in income distribution across various segments of the population — but “it is only one of many.”

He notes as an example that even in the current economy with historically low unemployment, only 63 percent of the eligible population is in the labor force or in business, because many individuals with the skills and training to be gainfully employed choose to stay outside the labor force or to work part-time for a wide variety of reasons. This applies even more so to the chassidic community, where many assign the highest priority to engaging in religious studies, tending to their community’s religious needs, or raising typically very large families, and whose values “take precedence over the pursuit of high or even merely comfortable income levels.”

But, he adds, to the extent that income levels are used as a proxy for educational adequacy, it is absolute income levels that must be considered, rather than how income levels compare with federal poverty levels. The latter increases rapidly with household size, which is unusually large among chassidim.

 

And with that introduction, the professor does something YAFFED would probably find novel: He cites actual statistics, using the US Census Bureau’s figures on income distribution in New York City’s 59 community board districts. They show that the Williamsburg and Boro Park districts, in which the vast majority of chassidic families reside, rank in the top and second quartile of the 59 districts, respectively.   

These figures show that Williamsburg has the 14th largest percentage, and Boro Park has the 27th largest, of males with an income above $100,000. The two districts’ rankings are also very similar to those just mentioned regarding males with income in excess of $50,000. What makes these numbers all the more remarkable, he notes, is that they are for all males 18 and older; due to the chassidic community’s very high birthrate, the age bracket between 18 and 30 represents a very large percentage of the population 18 and older, and since young males engage in Jewish studies and typically wait until their late twenties to start their careers, this population has close to zero income.

Finally, the professor responds to the YAFFED report’s 15 pages covering various federal and state sources of funding for yeshivos, intended to show that they receive “exorbitant sums of public funding despite their private status” and thus create an undue burden on taxpayers. Back to the Census Bureau statistics: For fiscal year 2016, New York State public schools received a combined $25,730 per student from federal, state and local governments.

Contrasted with the several hundred dollars yeshivos receive per student from their largest source of federal funding, and considering that yeshivah parents pay the same taxes as their public school counterparts and receive no tutiton tax breaks, state and local governments — and hence, taxpayers — actually realize a net savings of more than $25,000 per yeshivah student. Multiplied by New York City’s 110,000 yeshivah students, that’s an estimated annual savings of $2.75 billion, and including the 55,000 yeshivah students elsewhere in New York State, the total estimated statewide savings as a result of the yeshivah school system exceed $4 billion annually.

An idea: Perhaps the statewide community of yeshivah parents can collectively be given an award by Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio for their unparalelled contributions at very great personal cost to the fiscal welfare of New York State and New York City, and instead of presenting a plaque, the State Education Department can announce the recission of its recently issued guidelines for yeshivos. That can be followed by the presentation of a Community Service Award to YAFFED for its part in bringing the contributions of yeshivah parents to light.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 749. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

 

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