The Moral Costs of Jewish Day School
There is a lot of hand-wringing these days about whether the rising costs of Jewish day schools are sustainable. The discussion has been about money: How can we get more? How can we spend less? These questions miss the point: The largest costs of high day school tuition are not financial but moral, and the key to solving the financial dilemma is to address the moral problem.
What are the moral costs? Imagine that someone proposes a new Jewish practice that would have these consequences:
a. Parents take second jobs, or work longer hours, that deprive them of almost all weekday contact with their children and leave them too exhausted to make Shabbat meaningful.
b. Almost half of households are transformed, for years, from community contributors to charity recipients.
c. Children aspiring to intellectual, creative, or service work, such as teaching (especially Torah) or other helping professions, are told that these are not options because they will not produce enough money to sustain a committed Jewish lifestyle.
d. For economic reasons, families choose to have fewer children.
We would consider such a practice stunningly irresponsible. Yet these are real-life consequences of current day school tuition, even as the community seems committed to making day school education a requirement of serious Jewish child-rearing. How can we live with these consequences?
Furthermore, parents receiving day school financial aid have no guarantee, and often no idea, of how they will be affected by tuition hikes or whether the school will take account of a job loss, a new baby, a car's breakdown—or, on the other hand, a gift from a parent or extra income from a second job. They cannot make future plans; they are chronically dependent on other people's decisions. They are deprived of economic dignity. Indeed, financial aid applications require families to state their expenses in often-humiliating detail. They know a committee will sit in judgment of their priorities. A family that eats pasta all month so it can go to a movie risks an aid cut because it spends on entertainment. A family that uses an inheritance to visit yet-unseen relatives in Israel risks a cut because it can afford travel.
The price of poverty is often loss of privacy. This is an evil, which we should minimize. But the current system maximizes intrusions on privacy by forcing people who make five times the median income to apply for charity. Because the maximum tuition is unaffordable even for many families earning over $200,000 per year, they are forced into a financial aid system that requires complete financial disclosure.
The system also undermines the schools' Jewish effectiveness. If our children lack Jewish passion, doesn't that bespeak parental exhaustion? If they are materialistic, isn't this related to their being told that their career paths are limited because they are poor? When they show signs of being "at risk," doesn't this reflect lessened parental involvement? How can children internalize the core Jewish value of human dignity and the spiritual value of financial independence when their schools make them dependent?
Should we therefore undo our commitment—admittedly unprecedented in Jewish history, and inconceivable in a less wealthy community—to broad-based day school education? This is not necessary. We can address the moral issues and, in doing so, the financial issues as well.
The Solomon Schechter School of Greater Boston has proposed a version of a model with great potential. In very simplified form, here is how it might work: Tuition is set as either a fixed percentage of income—say, 15 percent, with small adjustments for the number of children in the school—or a relatively high set amount per student, which high-income families can use if they wish to pay a lower percentage of their income. Families unable to pay even the 15 percent could, as now, apply for financial aid.
This model corrects many of the current system's moral deficiencies:
- It makes the tuition-setting process transparent and predictable.
- It moves many middle-class families off the rolls of those receiving financial aid.
- It defines day school education as a public good to be communally supported instead of an individual good, privately purchased.
- It makes clear that the rich, even when they pay the maximum tuition, are assessed a lower percentage of their income than the middle class.
There are, of course, gaps and imperfections. The new system does not (yet) address families with children in multiple schools or questions of what costs should and should not be included in tuition. It also excludes, consciously, family assets. Yes, this exclusion could allow families to "cheat" by hiding their true financial capacity; but counting all assets would provide a disincentive to saving—and, equally important, would have critical implications for privacy and dignity.
No system is without drawbacks, but the proposed system's moral advantages are significant.
Still, let's be practical: The model will and should be required to pass the budget test. It should provide our schools with revenues at least equal to those of the present system. In fact, the new model would meet or exceed the test, if only because the percentage of income required as tuition can be set so as to produce approximately the revenues that schools receive now.
But the new system would have further budget advantages. Under the current system, schools operate under deeply flawed ideas about their revenues and their communities' financial capacities. They have arbitrary "financial aid budgets" for what they consider tuition "subsidies"; they turn down students when these budgets are "spent" and they can no longer "afford" to take students paying less than full tuition. In fact, however, any student who pays a significant portion of gross family income will be contributing significantly more than the marginal cost of his or her education. In rejecting such students, schools forego revenues and profits. Moreover, notes Dan Perla of the AviChai Foundation, if a school sets tuition as a percentage of income during a recession, when costs rise faster than wages, it will realize rising revenues from the same percentage of income when times improve.
In addition, it is wholly reasonable to expect that the new system would change behavior. Families who do not consider day school under the current system, because of uncertainties or privacy concerns, may well consider it when they know how tuition payments will relate to their income and are required to submit only the first page of their income tax returns. Families with many children will be more likely to send them to day schools; indeed, such families may grow larger over time. Wealthier and even middle-class families, who will no longer see their tuition payments as subsidizing their neighbors, may be more likely to donate. Families without children in the schools may also be more willing to donate if day school costs are presented as a communal obligation, not a commodity for purchase.
This new model requires elaboration and customization, but it can redirect the community's conversation and efforts toward a model of day school financing that is both financially and morally sustainable.
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, the intellectual catalyst of Modern Orthodoxy's "Taking Responsibility for Torah," and teaches Rabbinic Literature at Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, Massachusetts. Many of his lectures and articles can be found at the Center's website, www.TorahLeadership.org.
a) The rule of tithing, Ma'aser Kesafim, could be applied per family whether you have 1 child or 5 or more children in the school system. b) It could be given to one central system. c) Out-of-town yeshivas could be curtailed. Why send your children to Israel when you can get a yeshiva education in a local institution? The dormitory idea shaould also be scrapped as an unneccssary expense, and parents should see their children home every night after classes are finshed. d) Going to out-of-town institutions does not guarantee the success of the education system. e) Building competing schools within the city is part of the overall cost of tuition fees. Do we need 10 different day schools to cover all the different minhagim [customs] taught to our children? If you live in a city where there are large pockets of Jews espousing a different derech, maybe you need a 3 or 4 buildings. How about home schooling as an alternative, with some of the mothers and fathers who are knowledgeable in Jewish traditions teaching Chumash and basic Jewish law to 5 or 10 boys in a rotating teacher arrangement?
I do think there is value in secular learning in a Jewish environment. "Doing" Jewish is not reserved for services or afternoon Hebrew school. It provides a context for everything.
http://avichai.org/2012/05/middle-income-day-school-affordability-a-case-study/ They are offering this stability and discount to middle income families, but they define "middle income" as those making $200K-$400K. Two-thirds of the school is populated by families making $200K or more, so they are able to provide financial support families making less. If you're involved with a day school where families making $175K are low income, this is an option to consider. I also take strong exception to the justification of day schools based on their being the best source of Jewish values. We communally send children to day schools to gain knowledge they can't get elsewhere. Jewish values come from our homes, communities, synagogues, summer camps, and all types of Jewish education environments. Our supplemental schools embraced teaching Jewish values above all else in the decades of their greatest decline. If a day school is unable to justify itself on the knowledge gained by students and tries to claim the sole mantle for Jewish values, it, too, is plotting its path to irrelevance.
My feeling is that a child needing financial assistance to be Jewish should not need "clout," only a genuine need, which they certainly had.
Today, there are several Hebrew charter schools that have been organized around the country. Charter schools get their funding from public sources. This may offer a partial solution if someone can figure out how to integrate the secular Hebrew curriculum of the charter school with an additional dose of "ex-curricular" religious education in what would have to be in other locations, perhaps on the pattern of the older after-school religious schools which generally were synagogue-affiliated and were a much smaller financial burden for Jews who can't afford often multiple tuitions to a JDS.
Robin needs to understand that wealthy grandparents have no affect on a parents ability to pay. I know the Rabbinic cartel believes that not only should parents bankrupt themselves to pay sky high tuition so principals can be paid 200K+ a year but so should grandparents.
Who says the wealthy grandparents are willing to give the money or fill out your form. The grandparents did their job raising their children. The schools need to learn to keep their expenses in the budget the parents can afford.
Anyway, as I was saying at first I was very grateful for the assistance offered that enabled our children to receive a Jewish education and I felt it was worth every sacrifice we have to make. But over time I have began to feel less grateful and more resentful. As we are a dual income family our combined income is considered pretty good (it is over $100,000 grand a year after tax) but we work hard for it! Because of this we don't qualify for as much assistance for schools fees as others on lower incomes do. Which is fair enough perhaps, but I am a bit resentful of people in the community who don't work full-time but receive virtually free education for their children. I am also resentful of those who own their own business who appear able to downplay their actual income in order to get a subsidy while driving around in brand new cars because they claim their car is a business expense. I feel the middle group of parents on fixed salaries like us are getting squeezed out of Jewish schools as it is only the rich (who have no problems paying the fees) and the poor (who get heavily subsidized)who can keep their children there. Last year we did not hear back from the school until December about the level of assistance they could offer us which made if very hard to plan ahead. The amount we were expected to pay was $350 more a month than what we had been paying the previous year but my husband and I are not earning anymore. Where does this money come from? We are afraid that if there is the same hike in fees next year then our children will have to leave. We have begun preparing our children. My son is resentful he only has two more years left of high school and would really like to stay there with his friends - he even starting crying and saying he would never forgive us if we take him out. My daughter who is younger seems to be more mature and philosophical about it - she starts high school next year so it could be a fresh start for her (the high school and primary school at the Jewish school are on separate campuses). My husband and I often fight about money due to the stress of trying to pay school fees and I wonder at what effect that is having on our children. Our children think we are poor (though we are not - just comparatively so relative to some of their school friends who go skiing in Aspen from Australia!!). My son has picked up some disturbing habits from his privileged school friends - sense of entitlement/unrealistic expectations and so on which makes us question the values the school is installing in them and whether we are really getting value for money - it would be nice if there were more middle-class 'normal' children at the school but they have all been priced out or are unprepared to humiliate themselves by applying for subsidy. We cannot afford holidays and have only done so in the past because my family has contributed. If we do go overseas (I'm from New Zealand) we have to show in our application for financial assistance how we afforded that. We spent nearly $5000 on a new engine for our car last year but had no emergency fund to draw on as the school 'takes' all our 'discretionary' cash. We are getting further and further into debt on our credit card. I can't even afford to get my hair cut at the moment. The increasing cost of providing a Jewish education for their children is not sustainable for normal middle class families and it is very sad.
I wish to add that to create well rounded, passionate, committed Jewish children and young adults we have to consider not only day school, but also jewish camping, participation in activities at the JCC, Jewish youth groups, etc. We have to look at the big picture of the cost of raising Jewish children. Jewish day school is vitally important and the most important investment we can make for the next generation. However, there are other critical programs in the world of informal Jewish education that are prohibitive in terms of costs as well. We need to have an integrated process to help families participate in a variety of crucial educational experiences that is respectful and protects the family's dignity.
Thank you for mentioning home-schooling in your comment. In fact, many Jewish families are embracing this option as a valid path for Jewish education and family success. Just a few weeks ago I attended and spoke at the 4th Annual Torah Home Education Conference in Baltimore, MD. We had well over 100 parents in attendance. It was a very successful and empowering gathering for all involved. For those who are ready to throw tomatoes: I completely understand that home education is not a solution for the community at large. But many families are finding dignity, success, and happiness on this path while producing Jewishly and otherwise successful children.
You can read more about the conference here:
The issue at hand is how to enable every child whose parents want to send the child to Jewish day school to do so. A significant part of the problem is that cost-conscious, professional managers who are experienced in business are not running these schools. They are being run by Jewish educators.
Why it is necessary to have several admissions people at a school with 200 students is hard to understand. Why it is necessary to have a large staff that doesn’t teach is also difficult to understand. A head of school AND a principal? Unless the head of school is a significant fundraiser and brings in at least 4 times her salary and overhead that would not otherwise be obtained, there is just no justification for the position. The community has to decide whether it’s more important to pay rabbis and others who are otherwise unemployable, or to manage costs.
The out-of-the-box solution is to send the child to public school for 9 months of the year, and in the summer to send the child to a program in Israel designed for American students who attend public school. This requires that at least one parent go to Israel. If one parent is not working, and the other parent is a high wage earner, this is a more cost effective solution than Jewish day school. It does mean that the working parent is away from her children for an extended period of time, which is obviously not desirable.
The situation for so many is very sad, and just as the Rabbi said, often requires families to make sacrifices that just aren’t reasonable.
1. Regardless of whether some of the posters of comments agree, we find value in having our children receive the education at SSDSGB. We live in Newton, MA, where the school is located. There is an excellent public school system in Newton - which we could access for no additional cost (beyond the taxes we already pay).
2. Our income, in prior years, was too high to qualify for much financial aid, and the process of applying required providing a large amount of information about our finances. We had never been asked about such things as whether we chose to go the movies, or on a trip, etc.
3. The tuition cap equal to 15 % of our combined salaries was very welcome, we still pay a substantial tuition. We think of this as a measure of our interest in providing a Jewish education to our children. But we also need to think of their secular lives, and the future cost of college tuition, and our hope for their future financial freedom.
This idea/issue is relevant in all communities, I think.
Are you indicating that at SSDSGB a family with 4 children and 100k in income pays ~15k?
Another point - dont think the crushing cost of Jewish Day Schools does not make people think twice about having (more) kids.
Es ist schwere tzu zine a Yid. No, it isn't difficult to be a Jew. It is only costly. Tevia said, "If I were a rich man" Well, it is seems that is what you have to be. That is why most Jews are secular. They don't go to schul except for a Bnai Mitzvah. They are not members of Congregations. It cost to much money to belong. They don't keep kosher because it is too expensive. Beside where can you get a Kosher filet mignon in the U.S. Well, be an atheist, they don't worry about religion. And yes, HaShem will let them into heaven.
The proposed solution???
Move to Israel
I would love to send my child to a JDS, and I could, in theory, put the 13K we currently spend on daycare (mind you,this is not full time daycare in Boston) toward JDS tuition. But that choice for me would mean never returning to the middle class, much less the upper middle class level that the American Jewish community requires for full participation.
It would mean never saving for college. It would mean not having an emergency fund, thus putting us in danger again when the normal economic setbacks of life come up. It would mean not visiting Israel, not taking vacations, not seeing family very often. It would mean not being able to pay full membership in a shul, not giving very much to tsedakah, not going to Jewish summer camp (except perhaps on scholarship). It would mean continuing to rent indefinitely.
I have many friends who chose JDS in Boston and many of them receive scholarships that make it affordable for them. They are all having wonderful experiences -- and the schools have been very respectful, very generous. My guess is that we would also receive a scholarship, given our situation.
But all of the people I know -- every single one -- also have significant financial resources in their extended family.
Someone else helped them pay for daycare, someone else will pay for vacations, someone gave them a large downpayment 10 years ago, which keeps their monthly housing cost low. Someone has already paid for their graduate school and there is a significant gift towards college tuition waiting in the wings. When their parents pass away (may they all live to 120), it will completely transform their economic situation. Not so for me. I am actually middle class.
These friends of mine not wealthy but neither are they are as poor as they seem on paper. Many of them work in social services or teaching. My income exceeds theirs. But they work in low-paid fields because their families could afford to spend 100K on a graduate degree that nets them 50K a year. And they stay in lower-paid professions because their lives are subsidized in many subtle ways by their families. Their lower income is actually a sign of privilege.
My friends make sacrifices for JDS, but their sacrifices are organic vs. regular and overseas vacation vs. camping. They are not dental care vs. none. They own houses. They are not in significant debt. They can afford for one person to stay home or to have a more flexible schedule. No matter how little they make on paper, they will not go below a certain limit of middle class life. Someone will pay for dental care. Someone will make sure their car is safe.
My income is my only asset. Unless I use it wisely, I will remain in debt and I will pass on liabilities to my child instead of assets. That is what it means to be middle class instead of upper middle class. The margin is very thin. You need to use any extra income you do have very carefully. You need to leverage everything you have to try to produce more and better for your kids.
I know that I am not the only Jew in America who went to college on a scholarship, not the only one who did not receive a downpayment at my wedding, not the only one who supports my family fully on my income -- but it sure feels like it most of the time. I don't know where the Jews like me are, but they are not generally members of the active Jewish community. The active Jewish community is full of Jews with far more assets than we have -- whether those are visible assets held by the family or invisible assets held at the parent or grandparent level.
There is no easy answer. Inequality is part of life - it is not the fault of the more wealthy members of our community that their grandfather did amazingly well in America and mine did not. I am humbled and proud of how generous most American Jews are and how well they support our communal institutions and how hard people try to equalize opportunity. I feel that most American Jews manage their wealth correctly -- they enjoy it and they also give generously to those who have less. G-d willing, I too will someday contribute rather than simply paying my own way, as I do now.
I definitely feel that income-based tuition is more fair than scholarships, despite the hidden assets many people have. It gives me a feeling of being an equal contributor. I would feel much more confident about JDS under that rubric. It would enable me to accurately calculate trade-offs. It would allow me to take a vacation without guilt, as long as I report my income appropriately. I think it is a good step forward. As for JDS vs. Hebrew school -- I don't think you can compare. Every family must choose the best path for their children but I don't think we can question whether more JDS produces more committed Jews. It does.
But we do need to raise the question of whether JDS is a financially responsible choice. I am not convinced that it is correct behavior for someone like myself -- someone who is in debt, who has no college savings for their child. Maybe people like myself should use public schools for a few years, until we are able to both pay our tuition and remain middle class under our own steam.
We should all work to underwrite Jewish Day School education for all, regardless of income or financial status. This should be the number one charitable choice for every Jew. We need every Jewish child to be educated and to be given a love for his/her religion, it's past, present, societal value and future.
In Birmingham, my hope is, and the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School's goal (speaking as a former Board member) is to have a large enough endowment so as to eliminate the cost of tuition for all children. May we see this achieved in the future.
Instead of forcing parents into a position of uncertainty, guilt, shame and a lifetime of financial denial, the school will provide an education based on what parents are able to pay, even if that means the school operates only part-time.
If the school wants to provide an education that costs more than the amount of money parents are willing to pay, then it must raise the shortfall some other way. After all, if Jewish day school is such a priority that parents feel pressured by the Jewish community to send their kids there, shouldn't the community shoulder part of the financial burden?
If it really is that important for Jewish children to attend Jewish schools -- and I believe it is -- then it is incumbent on the Jewish community to provide Jewish schools that parents can afford. If we as a community can only afford so much, then we need to be creative so as to live within our budget.
Moreover, as the comment bout cheaper Catholic schools shows, money is wasted in the Jewish education system. The competition of public school for Catholic School children is more compelling for the Catholics, since they can move more easily between systems. Ergo, cheaper tuition.
Here are a few suggestions, not necessarily related to each other.
1) Provide central funding for all schools, rather than separate tuitions for different schools. A consequence of such a system is that a parent with teaching skills can trade tuition for 6-hour 5-day teaching positions for all of their children no matter how many children or how many schools they attend. This is how it works for the Rabbis who get tuition almost gratis for pitifully low salaries. Many Rabbis then go out to work at something after their school hours are finished. Tuition-providing positions do not have to be limited to classroom hours, but may include administration, maintenance, and fund-raising. With such a system, taxes (in the US) would be lower for the family. No "government cut" means less work for more value.
2) One school that could not get a top-drawer Chumash teacher for their very bright and motivated students hired someone in Israel on a per-semester basis (i.e., lower cost) who gives the class over Skype. The advantage of having Israel provide teachers stems from the state's provision of all major education expenses for training those teachers.
3) Aliyah was mentioned above as a real alternative. My friend's daughter is moving to Israel with her six boy to avoid impoverishing tuition costs, despite two incomes, each well above $100,000. Another advantage to Aliyah is that children raise themselves in Israel because of the culture that permits more positive interactions between children and adults and tolerates more negative interactions between people as an expected part of daily life.
4) True home schooling for younger children. Home schooling has many advantages, though it is more pressured for an unprepared parent. One systemic advantage for home schooling is that it provides competition for the Yeshivahs that does not now exist. How many $20,000 tuitions can a school lose before it gets with the business of efficiency? When the day-school "business" becomes less profitable, things will change. When my family lived in Israel, my daughter in the first grade was the 45th child in her class. She claims that she did not learn anything, but her accomplishments speak of a different real-world outcome than she perceived.
for the last 10 years , the issue seems to be the same every summer. Will the school be
around in the fall ? Will the funding be there for the school from
the Federation to keep the school running? This year the issue has become, will we have
enough kids to even warrant a school. Does the Jewish community
in the Palm Springs area want a school.
Our tuition rates are among the lowest in the country. At 8,750/ year
they are competive even with Catholic schools.. Yet we are not
able to attract enough students. We have great teachers, an added value
Curriculum , an excellent administrator and only 30 kids committed for next fall.
My observation is that among the Jewish population, which in our local
community is made up of mostly mixed marriages(only one parent is Jewish),
that Jewish education and values is not that important. Rather, integration
into the general population with a little Sunday school at the local temple is
the course of action for most local Jews.
Attracting students now is of great importance. Our curriculum is changing. We hope
to be a STEM school next year( if there is one)with greater emphasis on science, math and
the arts and a little less on Judaic studies.The bottom line is
that the needs of our community have changed. A truly sad state of affairs for
the Jewish community in the Palm Springs area. Is Jewish education doomed? Are
the Jewish people living in Diaspora doomed. Today, 46 % of American Jews are intermarrying.
What will it be in 10 years. 60%, 75%. Is American Jewry doomed? Will your grandchildren
be Jewish? Do American Jews care?
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