Gov. Kathy Hochul is downplaying some private school leaders' concerns about efforts to include language in the budget that would make it easier for nonpublic schools to be in compliance with state Education Department guidelines bolstered last year.

Nontraditional public schools are on alert after members of the Board of Regents voted in September to strengthen requirements and oversight of the curriculum taught in nonpublic schools and to enforce instruction equivalent to public districts.

Leaders with the state Association of Independent Schools and the Council of Catholic School Superintendents sent letters to Hochul and all members of the Legislature this week after they got wind of a potential push to slip language in the final state budget that would undermine SED's new, stricter "substantial equivalency" regulations.

It's concerning to James Cultrara, executive secretary of the state Council of Catholic School Superintendents, who sent his letter to the governor and lawmakers Tuesday.

"Any legislative attempt to undermine or supersede that regulation we believe is not prudent," he said.

Language to relax or create other pathways for schools to satisfy SED's substantial equivalency requirements were not included in the governor's, Senate's nor Assembly's budgets. School leaders sent their letters to Hochul and lawmakers after hearing of efforts to include the changes during budget negotiations that have largely taken place behind closed doors.

Multiple lawmakers, including Education Committee chairs Assemblyman Michael Benedetto and Sen. Shelley Mayer, said they have not seen the language and declined to be interviewed.

"The very fact we know discussions are happening and there's no language that's being shared for people like myself and others to have input on — that's cause for worry," Cultrara said.

The conversation is continuing on the heels of reports this week of efforts of leaders and lawmakers in the Orthodox Jewish community to deceive lawmakers into passing legislation that would have allowed private accreditation agencies to decide if a nonpublic school is in compliance with SED's standards to offer instruction equivalent to public schools. That language is hidden within the bill, which died in the Senate.

Some members of the Hasidic Jewish community have fought hard against the strengthened regulations, arguing it will impede parents' ability to decide what values their children learn at school.

Sources say leaders in the Hasidic Jewish community stepped up the political pressure on Hochul and legislative leaders after SED's regulations were approved late last summer. They floated creating additional pathways for accredited nonpublic elementary or high schools to be in compliance with the rules if the majority of students taking exams are within the 33rd percentile of public schools located in the district.

Hasidic leaders also pushed for a pathway to substantial equivalency for nonpublic schools if the school is comparable to similarly performing public schools in their school district and if it can be demonstrated that students show academic progress, according to sources. The proposals were found to have too many legal holes or ambiguities, and members of the Orthodox Jewish community stopped pushing for it to counter SED's new guidelines. 

Sources say Hochul was open with leaders in the Hasidic Jewish community about their legislative agenda when she met with them several times last year leading up to the Nov. 8 gubernatorial election, but she has since stopped responding to their requests.

Representatives with Hochul, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins say they have not discussed any substantial equivalency requirement enforcement changes as part of ongoing budget talks, which continue to be dominated by bail reform and housing.

"Gov. Hochul's Executive Budget proposes transformative investments to support New York's students, including record funding for schools and expanding opportunities for students to succeed," Avi Small, a spokesman for Hochul, said in a statement Friday. "There have been no conversations about the Substantial Equivalency Requirement during budget negotiations, and Gov. Hochul has not made any proposals to change it."

Efforts to slip similar changes in the state budget has happened over the last several years, pushing nontraditional school leaders in favor of the stricter SED guidelines to fight back and stop potential talks in their tracks.

"If I were to think they would be content, I'd be a fool," Cultrara said.

Much of the state's Orthodox Jewish community threw support behind Republican gubernatorial nominee former U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin in last year's election. Zeldin is aligned with many Republican state lawmakers who stand against the stronger substantial equivalency regulations, arguing they attack New Yorkers' religious and educational liberties.

"Parents need to be able to make choices they believe are good for their children," Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt said Friday. "...Last year, our conference was supportive of those schools and I would certainly continue to advocate for them and if there were changes or rollbacks to some of the things that were done that had a positive impact."

Last week, an Albany County Supreme Court judge ruled the state Education Department does not have the power to force yeshivas or other nontraditional public schools to close for not teaching a secular curriculum equivalent to a public district, but upheld the regulations that requiring a basic level of secular education in private and religious schools in the English language do not violate religious freedom and parental rights.

SED's Substantial Equivalency regulation "was developed with broad stakeholder input and participation in a manner consistent with the Board of Regents' core principles including diversity, equity and inclusion," department officials said.

Stakeholders from across the state provided feedback on the proposals at dozens of in-person or virtual meetings and submitted public comment.

Nonpublic schools can demonstrate compliance without a review by the local school district by accreditation by a recognized accreditor; by offering International Baccalaureate (IB) and U.S. Government-Approved Instruction, having the status of being a registered high school and demonstrating grade-level progress on assessments approved by SED.

"Some of our major religious and independent school stakeholders have provided positive feedback regarding the flexibility of the approach taken," according to department officials Friday. "We recognize that New York’s cultural, racial and religious diversity is our strength and should serve as a vehicle to learn from each other. We remain committed to ensuring students who attend school in settings consistent with their religious and cultural beliefs and values receive the education to which they are legally entitled."