New York Education Law Rooted in Anti-Catholic Animus

New York Education Law Rooted in Anti-Catholic Animus
Journal unearths origin of legislation at center of fight over Jewish schools

July 11, 2019—A New York law requiring non-public schools to offer an education that is “substantially equivalent” to public schools was enacted in 1894 amid a surge of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment, Education Next reports in a new article.

The law is at the center of an ongoing, four-year-long fight over the proper role of city and state government in regulating New York’s Jewish religious schools, which educate more children than the Philadelphia or San Diego public school districts. That fight has been the subject of at least two court cases and extensive local and national press coverage. But until now, the legislative history and historical context of the law had been unexplored.

“The whole fight hinges on language in New York’s state education law requiring that non-public schools offer an education that is ‘substantially equivalent’ to that of the public schools,” Menachem Wecker writes in his Education Next article. “The origins of that language help uncover the issues at stake.”

Wecker and Education Next editors investigated the origin of the law over six months, tapping the resources of five libraries and archives situated in two states and the District of Columbia.

Among the article’s findings:

Rising xenophobia. The president of the 1894 New York Constitutional Convention that outlawed government funding of religious schools was Joseph Choate, who in 1893 had proposed “Ireland for Irishmen and America for Americans,” and had in March 1894 declared at a Republican mass meeting, “we are tired of being submitted to the despotic control of a handful of foreigners who have no stake in the soil.” Delegates to the convention were mailed cartoons depicting the Catholic Church as a monstrous snake.

Initial defeat. At the same time as the convention, the state added the “substantially equivalent” provision. One newspaper at the time reported that the measure had been defeated in earlier years “owing to the fears of Roman Catholics that a compulsory education law would interfere with their parochial schools.”

Wecker also reports on his visits to two Jewish schools in Brooklyn, including one that was on a list of schools that an advocacy group said should be investigated for failing the “substantially equivalent” test.

To receive an embargoed copy of “New York State Cracks Down on Jewish Schools: Senator Simcha Felder and Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel Meet the Long Shadow of Joseph Hodges Choate” or to speak with the author, please contact. The article will be available Tuesday, July 16 on and will appear in the Fall 2019 issue of Education Next, available in print on August 28, 2019.

About the Authors: Menachem Wecker is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

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