Education Secretary Betsy DeVos toured two New York City schools on Tuesday and Wednesday, but the city’s public schools, with their 1.1 million students, were not among them.
Instead, Ms. DeVos visited two Orthodox Jewish schools, and offered her strongest comments to date in support of public funding for religious schools in a meeting with Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan and other Catholic dignitaries.
“I know very well there are powerful interests that want to deprive families their God-given freedom,” to choose private schools, she told the cardinal and the Alfred E. Smith Foundation, which supports Catholic charities, on Wednesday morning, according to her prepared remarks. “I know that those sycophants of ‘the system’ have kept legislators here from enacting a common-sense program that would open options to thousands of kids in need.”
Ms. DeVos has yet to visit a district-run school in New York, and her choice of institutions to visit drew a terse statement from the city’s Department of Education. “An investment in public education is an investment in the future of our city and country,” the department’s press secretary, Toya Holness, said. “Secretary DeVos is welcome to visit N.Y.C. public schools and see the phenomenal work we’re doing in the nation’s largest school district.”
Ms. DeVos’s Orthodox Jewish school stops, at Yeshiva Darchei Torah, in Far Rockaway, Queens, on Wednesday, and at the Manhattan High School for Girls on the Upper East Side the previous day, culminated months of planning by Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish institutions that counts her as a friend.
But the timing of her visit comes as Orthodox yeshivas are embroiled in a growing controversy locally about whether they provide adequate secular education. It also comes as politicians representing Orthodox Jewish interests have been gaining legislative pull in New York State.
In March, State Senator Simcha Felder held up the entire state budget to insert language into New York State law aimed at reducing state oversight of yeshivas, which in some cases provide limited or no secular education to boys of high school age.
The failure of some yeshivas to provide a sound basic education has been under investigation in New York City since 2015, but the city has not yet released its report. The investigation was sparked when a grass-roots advocacy group called Yaffed presented allegations that at least 39 ultra-Orthodox Hasidic schools in New York City were teaching such limited secular studies that boys were graduating unable to function outside of their Yiddish-speaking religious community.
City officials recently said they had visited 15 of those schools. On Tuesday, the education department said it was assessing the impact of the new state law, which in some ways shifts oversight responsibility for the yeshivas back to the state.
The two Orthodox schools chosen for Ms. DeVos’s visit were not Hasidic schools, however. Rather, they are schools affiliated with another wing of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, known as Litvish or Yeshivish, which is rooted in Lithuanian Jewish tradition.