Controversial new “substantial equivalency” regulations for private schools in the state were praised by the New York State Catholic Conference last week, with Executive Director Dennis Poust, saying he expects “100 percent of the Catholic schools in the state to be deemed substantially equivalent in terms of their secular education.”

The New York State Board of Regents unanimously voted Sept. 13 to give local school districts the power to assess that non-public schools are offering the same education — “substantial equivalency’ ” — in core subjects such as math, science, social studies and English. The Catholic Conference had initially indicated concerns because the original draft regulations put the responsibility on public school districts to make such determinations. However, after multi-year advocacy with the Regents and State Education Department, the Regents added “multiple pathways” for non-public schools to prove they are already equivalent and forgo that process. Two of the numerous pathways include accreditation by a department-approved accreditation organization or regularly administered state assessment tests.

“The bottom line is what parents need to understand is that nothing is going to change in terms of the education they are going to get and nothing is going to change in terms of any sort of relationship with the state,” Poust told The Evangelist. “This is not the state coming in and dictating curriculum. ... That was a fear that parents have had. First of all it was never about religious education. The state does not get to determine what we teach in terms of our moral values and beliefs, so that has always been the case and that will not change.

“I think that is an important point because when people hear about this on a basic level it might sound that we may have to teach the same kind of things as a public school. We have to do the things that we have always done … English, math, science and social studies. This will not impact our Catholic schools in how we teach or in how we demonstrate that we are substantially equivalent in any way and, as we like to say, we surpass or exceed many of the public school standards in many cases. Ninety percent of our kids go to college. By every metric we surpass public schools and non-public schools.” 

All Diocese of Albany Catholic schools are accredited — and were recently re-accredited by Cognia, a non-profit, non-governmental organization that accredits primary and secondary schools throughout the United States — and administer New York State assessments. 

“Our Catholic schools have long recognized the importance of participating in a rigorous accreditation process that objectively demonstrates to our school families — and to the general public — the strength of the academic programs we provide,” said Giovanni Virgiglio, diocesan superintendent of schools, in a statement to The Evangelist. “Members of our school communities were tireless advocates in the effort to safeguard the ability of our Catholic schools to demonstrate the quality of education through multiple objective pathways. We are pleased that the Board of Regents — with the approval of its recent regulations — validated these efforts. This news comes on the heels of our entire system of Catholic schools receiving re-accreditation by the Cognia Global Accreditation Commission.”

Certain non-public schools, however, are expected to continue to fight these regulations, which have actually been on the books in this state since 1895 under the “Compulsory Education Law.” Under the new updates, local school authorities (LSAs) must report all non-public schools in their geographic boundaries by Sept. 1, 2023 and must make determinations on the substantial equivalency of those schools by Dec. 1, 2024.

The battle for substantial equivalency started in 2015 when parents and former students and teachers filed a complaint against the New York City Department of Education saying that certain religious schools did not meet these standards. In 2018, the Department of Education put out draft regulations that Poust said “put too much power at the local level.”

“It became a political issue,” he said. “For us (the draft regulations) were problematic because it gave all the responsibility to the local school authority and the local public school districts to determine whether the private schools in their geographic areas were substantially equivalent. This raised all sorts of concerns. We don’t think it was any of their business and, in many cases, we are in competition for the same students.”

Poust offered a theoretical scenario where a local school authority, under earlier drafts, could have investigated a Catholic school to determine its substantial equivalency. Fueled by rumors, misinformation or a campaign by a rogue school board member who opposed the Church’s teaching on moral issues, such investigation could have a catastrophic effect on parents’ opinions of that Catholic school and its future.

“We always said we are happy to demonstrate that we are substantially equivalent but we always felt it’s the Department of Education who has the authority not the local school district,” he added. “All of our schools were charted by the Board of Regents to operate and that is where the original charter comes from, so who else in the government should we be accountable to? Certainly not the local public schools. So that was our issue with it. We were never opposed to the concept of demonstrating our equivalency. We are proud of our record and we have always stood on it.”

Poust credited the role of New York Commissioner of Education Betty Rosa in the process. Rosa, the former chancellor of the Board of Regents, was hired as new commissioner in February of 2021.

“She has been responsive to our concerns and worked with us really closely and her staff has worked with us really closely to hear our concerns,” Poust said. “Understand we weren’t trying to get out of demonstrating anything, again we are proud of our record and will hold it up to anybody.”