There are lies, damned lies, and New York Times statistics.
Last Sunday, the New York Times published a hit piece on yeshivas, the religious schools that serve Orthodox Jewish students. The piece, rife with half-truths and distortions, was clearly timed to influence a vote by the New York Board of Regents on a proposal to regulate private schools.
Although aimed at the yeshivas, the proposal would require all private schools to prove that they provide an education that is “substantially equivalent” to that provided by the public schools, including a minimum amount of time spent on several academic subjects. The board received more than 350,000 public comments, a record high, overwhelmingly opposed to the proposal.
Nevertheless, the New York Times article appears to have had its intended effect. On Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to approve the regulations. There was no debate.
Most yeshivas teach secular subjects, and many are among the highest-performing schools in the state, but a subset of Hasidic yeshivas focuses primarily on religious instruction and minimizes secular education. Its rejection of mainstream culture and its values has kindled the ire of the New York Times.
The New York Times's narrative about the yeshivas is evident in its headline: “In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Private Schools Flush With Public Money.” Public money invites public oversight, and Hasidic yeshivas perform poorly as measured by standardized test scores. The New York Times inevitably concluded: Yeshiva graduates, supposedly lacking basic skills, are doomed to lives of poverty and dependency. Hence, the government must intervene.
But the New York Times failed to make its case on all counts. It relied on anecdotes and the selective use of data to further its narrative, carefully presenting facts in a manner designed to leave a desired impression while omitting key context that would undermine that narrative.
Are the yeshivas “flush” with taxpayer dollars? The New York Times claimed that the Hasidic yeshivas have received about $1 billion in public funding over the last four years. That sounds like a lot, at least until you crunch the numbers.
The New York Times is vague about how many schools it included in its fiscal analysis. The article claimed to be focused on yeshivas serving 50,000 Hasidic boys, but it might have included schools serving north of 100,000 Orthodox students. That would mean those schools are receiving about $2,500 to $5,000 per pupil in public assistance, most of which is funding for noninstructional purposes such as food, transportation, and after-school child care. The New York Times identified only about $1,000 to $2,000 per pupil in mostly federal funding that it loosely ties to instruction, but that figure includes funds to “administer tests, check attendance, report enrollment data, and buy instructional materials.”
The New York Times omitted any mention of what’s spent in the public system. New York City public schools spend nearly $31,000 per pupil, not including $13 billion in federal COVID-19 relief. For the 2022-23 school year, NYC’s public school budget is $58 billion.
The yeshivas are not “flush” with public funding. Compared to the public schools, the yeshivas barely receive a drop in the bucket. The New York Times also cherry-picked testing data and made inappropriate comparisons to condemn the yeshivas as academic failures.
First, the New York Times deemed the results of high school Regents Exams unfit to print, claiming they are not informative because “very few Hasidic students take those tests.” The Regents Exams are the statewide standardized test in core subjects that New York high school students must pass to receive a Regents Diploma. Students at all public schools and most private schools in New York take the exam. As the Jewish Press reported, the Regents scores “reveal that New York yeshiva students are outperforming their public school peers in the four core subjects of English, math, science, and history — by far.” Indeed, the yeshivas earned “19 of the top 20 average private school scores in New York’s English Language Arts exam.”
Instead, the New York Times chose to focus on the results of the New York state test given to primary school students even though, as with the Regents test, very few of the Hasidic students take it. Nevertheless, this time, the New York Times did not find the small sample size problematic, deeming the more negative results very fit to print. “Only nine schools in the state had less than 1 percent of students testing at grade level in 2019,” the New York Times breathlessly reported. “All of them were Hasidic boys’ schools.”
But comparing yeshiva students who speak Yiddish at home to the results from all students in other schools is not valid. The relevant comparison would be to see how yeshivas do relative to the English-language learning students in public schools who similarly come from homes where English is not the primary language. Doing so reveals that there are 155 schools in New York City in which fewer than 1% of ELL students performed at grade level on the 2019 English Language Arts exam. In fact, in more than 95% of New York City’s public schools, at least two-thirds of ELL students fail to perform at grade level.
Students from homes where English is not the primary spoken language have challenges in how they fare on the state’s exams. This is as true for New York City’s public schools as it is for the yeshivas.
But are the yeshivas leaving their graduates wholly unprepared to earn a living, dooming them to dependency?
The New York Times claimed that “poverty rates in Hasidic neighborhoods [are] some of the highest in New York.” However, it failed to offer any data, relying instead on anecdotes, such as the former Hasid who “struggled to earn a medical degree,” to further the narrative.
Even assuming the New York Times is correct, poverty rates provide a distorted picture of Hasidic earning power for two reasons. First, poverty rates are tied to family size, and Orthodox Jews have large families — about 6.5 children, on average. That leads to the second reason: Larger families translates into a younger median age — 35 among the Orthodox Jewish population compared to 46 for the general public. Since earnings increase with age, on average, the Orthodox Jewish community looks poorer than it really is.
A better measure of earning power is household income. According to the 2021 Pew Research Center survey, 22% of Orthodox Jewish households earned more than $150,000, compared to 8% of the general public, and 26% of Orthodox Jews earned less than $50,000, compared to 48% of the general public.
Admittedly, the Pew data for Orthodox Jews include Hasidic as well as non-Hasidic Jews, who tend to earn considerably more. But it tracks with a 2021 study by Nishma Research, which found that Hasidic Jews had a median household income of $102,000 compared to $188,000 among the modern Orthodox. What’s clear is that Hasidic Jews are equally or better prepared to earn a living than the median American.
Having utterly failed to make its case, the New York Times desperately attempted to portray the yeshivas as schools filled with violence and fear. Yet again, it relied only on anecdote and innuendo, reporting that “more than 35 men who either attended or worked at a Hasidic school in the past decade told The Times they saw teachers hit students with rulers, belts and sticks.”
In the only other attempt to quantify the magnitude of the problem, the article said that “over the past five years, the New York City Police Department has investigated more than a dozen claims of child abuse at the schools,” although it conceded it “is not clear whether anyone was charged.” Thirty-five reports of hitting over a decade and a dozen allegations of abuse over five years amounts to about five or six incidents per year, assuming that they are all credible and not duplicative.
By contrast, the New York Police Department’s School Safety Division reported 8,001 potentially criminal incidents in New York City public schools in a single year (2019). Some resulted in arrests, though many are juvenile reports. Others are chargeable acts that were turned over to school officials for discipline. Still, the shocking and pervasive level of violence in New York City public schools is undeniable.
Even if one thinks that violence from teachers is somehow more dangerous than from peers, New York’s various news outlets report that public school teachers are arrested for things such as “throwing a boy to the ground,” “choking a student,” “sexual abuse,” “shoving a student into a wall,” and “threatening to shoot students” on a pretty regular basis. If this is what a simple Google News search covering the last few months turns up, just imagine what a two-year investigation would reveal about teacher misconduct in New York City public schools.
Better yet, the New York Times should investigate how its own reporters so thoroughly botched a front-page story they spent two years investigating. Now that would be news fit to print.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner