Christian schools and other nonpublic schools recently won an important case in a state trial court in Albany. On April 17, 2019, State Supreme Court Justice Christina Ryba found that so-called “guidelines” issued by the New York State Education Department (NYSED) in November 2018 regarding the monitoring of nonpublic schools violated state law. On that basis, Justice Ryba ruled those “guidelines” to be null and void.
State law requires nonpublic schools to provide students an education that is “substantially equivalent” to the education provided by public schools in the district where those students live (see Education Law § 3204(2). The NYSED “guidelines” would have required local school districts to regularly inspect all nonpublic schools to ensure that they met this legal requirement.
Christian schools, parochial schools, yeshivas, and independent schools across the state had banded together to fight the “guidelines” in court. The nonpublic schools stated that the “guidelines” would unconstitutionally involve the state in the operations of church-operated schools. Furthermore, the nonpublic schools argued that the “guidelines” gave school districts “direct authority to close independent schools” that were found to be deficient. The nonpublic schools also asserted that “since public schools are actually competitors for students, a conflict of interest would arise if representatives of public schools were charged with inspecting the competition.”
Justice Ryba voided the “guidelines” on procedural grounds. The judge reasoned that because the “guidelines” imposed new requirements on school districts and expanded the powers of those districts, they were not truly “guidelines”; rather, they were rules. The State Administrative Procedure Act (SAPA) requires that new rules issued by state agencies be submitted to the Secretary of State for publication, and that the public be given an opportunity to comment on those rules before they are implemented. Because NYSED did not follow the required process, its “guidelines” are illegal.
Christians across the state have cause for thanksgiving because of this decision. The decision means that for now, Christian schools will not be distracted from their educational mission by intrusive inspections from public school districts. Furthermore, those schools will not face the potential of being shut down if their operations do not meet with public school district approval. However, NYSED may appeal Justice Ryba’s decision. Also, it is possible that NYSED will opt to propose its “guidelines” as rules pursuant to the State Administrative Procedure Act. The effort to keep Christian schools free from state control continues.