February 20, 2019 at 4:04 p.m.

The problem with substantial equivalency

The problem with substantial equivalency
The problem with substantial equivalency

By EMILY BENSON- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Officials at the New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents are working to find middle-ground with the State Education Department (SED) over a new school review system which will allow local public school officials to determine if Catholic schools are “substantially equivalent” to a public education.

The substantial equivalency guidelines, which were announced in 2018, are designed to ensure that all denominational schools in the state are meeting basic education requirements in subjects such as English and math. 

According to the guidelines, each parochial school in the state will be subject to a review by their local school board. After each review, the board will hold a vote on whether the school is substantially equivalent to a public education and could potentially determine a school unfit. 

Each local school board could essentially supersede the state’s determination and authority over the operation of Catholic schools, despite the schools having already received their license to operate through charters issued by the Board of Regents and certificates of corporations issued by the state and approved by the SED.

James Cultrara, executive secretary of the state Council of Catholic School Superintendents, said that the diocesan schools “recognize the state’s authority to establish minimum academic standards” and have no objection “to being measured against those standards.”
The conflict comes from the process itself. 

“What the Council of Catholic School Superintendents cannot and will not accept is a review and determination of their substantial equivalency being made by a local public school and board of education, which in today’s world, those public schools are competitors.”

Across the Diocese, public, private and denominational schools are all in competition for the same group of local students. Public schools are required to provide mandated services, such as buses and textbooks, to private schools. But with increasing budget restraints, public schools could have financial incentive to mark private and religious schools as below standard. 

This vying for enrollment and funding creates concern for Catholic schools, which now find themselves placing the future of their school in the hands of their competition.

“We can’t accept a competitor having authority over whether or not our schools could operate,” said Mr. Cultrara. 

Since the new guidelines were announced, some 500 of the states Catholic schools have boycotted the review system and have called for the final determination of substantial equivalency to come from the SED and the Board of Regents.

The Catholic superintendents wrote numerous letters to the state Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia over the past year voicing their concerns with the review system. 

After the new guidelines were announced, the council wrote a letter on Dec. 5, 2018, rejecting the substantial equivalency guidelines and saying they would be “directing all diocesan Catholic schools not to participate in any review carried out by local public school officials.”

“We believe the process should be centralized with the state,” said Mr. Cultrara. Not allowing local school boards to interfere with the review process would allow for a more “objective, uniform and consistent” review.

“The subjectivity that the thousands of school board members and public school staff would bring to it creates the possibility that they’re going to conduct a review in one district different than a review might be in conducted in another district or with another private school,” he added.

The new guidelines were originally introduced as part of a plan to address the increasing concerns with ultra-orthodox Jewish yeshivas, many of which were barely meeting state standards. Because singling-out one community wasn’t an option, the state applied the review process across all private and non-public schools, even Catholic schools who have met or exceed current state requirements. 

The Council of Catholic School Superintendents is currently working with state legislators on seeking an amendment to the law and bestowing sole responsibility of non-public and parochial schools with the SED. 


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