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Legal Fight Underway To Make Yeshiva Students Meet NY State Standards

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) - The fight to insure that yeshiva students get a proper secular education is going to federal court.

A yeshiva advocacy group had sued to stop New York State from implementing the so-called "Felder amendment," an 11th hour deal to appease a state senator who was holding up the budget, reports CBS2's Marcia Kramer.

Critics are focusing their ire at Brooklyn state senator Simcha Felder, who threw the state budget negotiations into chaos and held up passage until he got an amendment to lower the bar on the amount of secular education required for yeshiva students.

"He took the state budget process and abused it, and used it to get an amendment that doesn't pass muster under the constitution," said attorney Eric Huang. "It creates a carve out that specifically targets Orthodox Jewish schools.

"It has an improper legislative purpose," he added.

Huang represents YAFFED, Young Advocates For Fair Education, which has waged an intense battle to make sure that yeshivas give their students instruction in English, math and other state-mandated subjects.

YAFFED founder Naftali Moster was sent to one of these yeshivas.

"I knew very basic English, very little math, that was it," said Moster. "Basically I could string together a broken sentence in English."

He says tens of thousands of New York students are being shortchanged, an estimated 52,000 in New York City and 26,000 upstate.

According to the Associated Press, an estimated 115,000 children attend Orthodox Jewish yeshivas in New York state. Many of the roughly 275 schools provide a full secular curriculum but the group estimates about 83 in New York City and 38 elsewhere in the state do not.

Chaim Wigter is one of them, saying with no secular education, life was a dead-end.

"Being in that school, I had no prospects," said Wigter. "None of the kids really had any prospects. There was no such thing as having a dream job... you either become a rabbi or stay in yeshiva for the rest of your life."

The suit seeks to stop Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state officials from enacting the Felder amendment.

A Cuomo spokesman said the law "sought to balance the unique needs of yeshivas with the high educational standards we require for every New York student, and we remain committed to achieving that balance."

"For too long lawmakers have turned a blind eye to this issue and allowed ultra Orthodox leaders to run their school with impunity," said Moster.

Moster also claims the city has dragged its feet in investigating his complaint, made three years ago, and that 39 yeshivas did not meet state standards.

The city Department of Education told CBS2 they have visited just 15 yeshivas, the same number they reported visiting last winter.

Senator Felder said he would have no comment about the yeshivas.

Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, which is not a party to the lawsuit, issued a statement to the AP saying the lawsuit "recycles many false claims about yeshivas that were previously made in Tweets, Facebook posts and press releases."

It said that the New York City Department of Education and the state's education department were familiar with the curriculum in the schools.

"We are confident that those who have made education their lifework will not be swayed by the inaccurate picture today's lawsuit portrays," it said.

(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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