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May 10, 2021
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JP O'Hare

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State Education Department Releases Report on Stakeholder Input on Substantially Equivalent Instruction

Feedback Gathered During Six Regional Meetings Will be Used to Inform Revised Proposed Regulations for Nonpublic Schools

The State Education Department today released a report summarizing feedback on substantial equivalence of instruction in nonpublic schools gathered during six regional meetings held last fall, State Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa announced. Representatives of the racial, linguistic, cultural and religious identities encompassed in New York’s more than 1,800 religious and independent schools, as well as public school leaders from around the state, participated in the feedback sessions. The feedback gathered will be used to inform revised proposed regulations.

“Our goal is to develop a sensitive, respectful and effective process to ensure children are receiving the education to which they are entitled within diverse school settings across New York State,” Board of Regents Chancellor Lester W. Young, Jr. said. “We have an obligation to make sure every child is prepared to be successful in life and be active participants in society, no matter where they attend school.” 

“Students are entitled to an education that enables them to fulfill their potential, be contributing members of society and participate in civic life,” Commissioner Rosa said. “Proposed regulations must both respect the diversity of schools in New York State and ensure that all students have substantially equivalent instruction so they have opportunities to succeed.”


Education Law requires that instruction for students in nonpublic schools “shall be at least substantially equivalent to the instruction given” in public schools. Over the past several years, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) has been engaged in a deliberative and thoughtful process to develop and revise proposed regulations. In 2018, the Department released guidance which was struck down for administrative reasons. Subsequently in 2019, NYSED issued proposed regulations. Due to the receipt of more than 140,000 comments from the public, the Board of Regents directed NYSED to gather stakeholder feedback on this issue to help inform revised proposed regulations.

NYSED held six virtual regional meetings in November and December 2020, one of which was a parent, student and alumni forum. In total, approximately 500 individuals participated in the stakeholder meetings, representing about 230 religious and independent schools, 65 public schools/districts and 18 BOCES. Other entities represented by participants included state-level organizations of public and nonpublic education leaders, advocacy organizations, individual school leaders and community-based organizations.

Each meeting centered on breakout group discussions to gather stakeholders’ suggestions for criteria and systems to ensure that schools are fulfilling their educational obligations under the law. Participants were assigned to breakout groups based on grade bands:

  • elementary (grades K–5),
  • middle (grades 6–8), or
  • high school (grades 9–12).

Further, NYSED staff also met with leaders of groups who, as a matter of faith, do not use the internet and could not be included in online forums. These meetings will be ongoing but have been delayed due to COVID-19 cases across the state.  


Stakeholders largely agreed that the process for determining substantial equivalence should be efficient, effective and not redundant. The measures used to determine equivalence might align with systems already use, such as:

  • curriculum,
  • in-house assessments,
  • accreditation,
  • standardized test scores, and
  • self-evaluation results and staff qualifications.

Stakeholders agreed that schools’ unique needs should be considered when creating policy to determine substantial equivalence of instruction and that the challenge lies in ensuring that children receive a substantially equivalent education, while respecting the cultures of nonpublic school communities. Regional meeting participants identified a number of components that should be considered in developing revised proposed regulations.

Diverse Educational Approaches

Stakeholders discussed a variety of factors that informed their schools’ approaches to education.

  • Parent Choice in Nonpublic Schools: Stakeholders, mainly from religious schools, discussed how parents play a large role in schools’ decision-making processes. Many stakeholders felt that because parents pay tuition for their children to attend nonpublic schools, these schools must meet parents’ expectations in order to retain their students.
  • Unique Needs of Communities: Educators agreed that the unique needs of their communities should be taken into account when creating policy to determine substantial equivalence of nonpublic schools.
  • Academic and Religious/Cultural Components: Participants from religious schools discussed that academic and religious components are woven together throughout their curricula. However, stakeholders did not always agree on how well some religious schools are balancing academic and religious components of their programs.
  • Focus on Individualized Learning: Educators said that individualized learning is a hallmark of their nonpublic schools which allows them to meet the diverse needs of their students and draws parents to choose nonpublic schools over public schools.

Local Determinations

The most prevalent concern for participants observed during meetings was the role public school districts play in determining substantial equivalence. Concerns included:

  • perception that public school districts lack the authority and expertise to regulate nonpublic schools;
  • public school districts may have insufficient capacity to support such a process;
  • having public school districts make substantial equivalence determinations about nonpublic schools would expose conflicts of interest; and
  • tasking public school districts with determining substantial equivalence could negatively affect existing cooperative partnerships between public and nonpublic schools.

Additionally, meeting attendees raised the issues of insufficient capacity of public and nonpublic schools to support a review process, that reviewers may lack a deep understanding of nonpublic school culture, and that revised substantial equivalence requirements could conflict with some schools’ beliefs. 

Next Steps

NYSED has identified a number of areas in which more information is needed, including:

  • How to define criteria for substantially equivalent instruction;
  • How requirements of accrediting bodies may align with requirements for substantial equivalence;
  • Assessments that may demonstrate nonpublic schools are providing substantially equivalent instruction; and
  • Resources needed to implement the process and requirements.

The Board of Regents will continue discussion and deliberations in the coming months. Revised proposed regulations tentatively will be issued this fall and will be released for public comment.