Are Day School Vouchers the Answer?

By Moshe Sokolow
Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Is Jewish education a parental or communal responsibility?  Over time, Jewish communities have offered different answers.  The privately funded heder, or one-room schoolhouse, with its melamed, or tutor, emphasizes the parental aspect.  The publicly maintained talmud torah, or congregational school, emphasizes the communal obligation.  Either model offers possibilities for sustaining Jewish education in America—if it is pursued with seriousness and energy. 

When German and, later, East European Jews immigrated to the United States in the 19th century, they brought their educational institutions with them. A 1911 study by the nascent Bureau of Jewish Education of New York recorded 468 hadarim, employing 653 melamdim and educating 13,952 students, and 24 talmud torah schools, with 163 teachers and 10,710 students.  The talmud torah system offered the bigger bang for the tuition buck, with just 24 institutions educating almost as many children as the 468 hadarim—but at the cost of pedagogical intimacy.  Conversely, the heder provided a far better faculty-student ratio, but presumably at a higher per capita cost. 

A century later, these relationships have not changed much; but something else has. In 1911 there were only three all-day Jewish schools in New York City: Etz Chaim (founded 1886), Yitzhak Elchanan (1897), and Rabbi Jacob Joseph (1902).  Indeed, through the immediate post-World War II period, the overwhelming instrument of Jewish education was the congregational weekend or evening school.  By the close of the 20th century, however, all-day schools were taking the place of supplementary schools.  The most recent census of day school enrollment, conducted by Marvin Schick on behalf of the Avi Chai Foundation, reported a 2008-2009 enrollment of 228,174 students in 802 schools and an overall enrollment increase of nearly 30 percent since the first census in 1998.

Lately, the financial crunch has curbed this phenomenal growth.  The crunch has also reawakened interest in school vouchers: local, state, or federal subsidies that can be applied, at parental discretion, to private school tuition.

School vouchers have long been controversial.  Teachers’ unions remain their most outspoken opponents, fearing the diversion of masses of students away from public schools, the ultimate source of the unions’ power.  The Jewish “establishment”—at least its non-Orthodox majority—has also opposed vouchers, out of a longstanding commitment to public education and reluctance to upset the church-state balance that it sees as critical to Jews’ fortunate American experience.

However, though vouchers have long been characterized as a threat to the bedrock constitutional principle of church-state separation, the Supreme Court ruled a Cleveland voucher plan constitutional in the 2002 case of Zelman v. Simons-Harris.  This spring, Louisiana enacted the most sweeping voucher plan in the nation; when the bill passed the state senate, the Orthodox Union celebrated, declaring that “day school affordability is the most serious domestic challenge facing our community.”   

Meanwhile, not just vouchers but day schools themselves have become controversial.  “Day schooling isn’t catching on among non-Orthodox Jews,” J.J. Goldberg asserted pessimistically in a Forward article, “despite two decades and millions of dollars spent pushing the idea.  The proposition that day schools are the answer to assimilation isn’t panning out.”  Jack Wertheimer answered with a defense of day schools, arguing in a Forward article of his own that the “future leadership of the Jewish community will be drawn disproportionately from the cadre of day school alumni”—a contention that echoed the conclusions of a 2006-7 study by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

These debates, however, have obscured some innovations on the ground to which we ought to pay attention.  Two Chicago initiatives offer particular promise.

One of these initiatives follows the “parental responsibility” model of Jewish education.  Some 20 years ago, long before the current day school crisis, Chicago businessman George Hanus launched “Operation Jewish Education: The Five Percent Mandate.”  Concerned about the severe financial distress that day school tuition was even then causing among committed Jews, as well as the burgeoning rates of intermarriage among the uncommitted, Hanus called upon Jews to earmark five percent of their estates for an endowment fund to support day school education.  Responding to his challenge, the Federation of Chicago established a number of “Day School Guaranteed Trust Funds,” providing 10 percent matching grants to funds controlled by the day schools.

The other Chicago initiative is based on communal obligation.  Some eight years ago, Joseph Walder, a Chicago biotech entrepreneur, launched the “Kehilla (Community) Fund.” Based on the traditional East European communal model, the fund collects monthly donations ranging from $5 to $1,000 from about 1,200 families in the area.  It raises about $650,000 a year and divides the money among 10 participating Orthodox elementary schools in Chicago with a total enrollment of about 2,700 children.  That amounts to an annual $250 per student, or close to $2,000 per student since the fund was established.

As the cost of Jewish education grows increasingly burdensome and its contribution to sustainable Jewish life becomes increasingly critical, these and similar initiatives merit serious consideration by the American Jewish community.  The community must come to some decisions about how to think about Jewish education and, in a related question, how it can be most appropriately and reliably financed.

The revered Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, at a fundraising event for the New York day school he headed and cherished, remarked that while people are making donations in multiples of chai, or life (equaling $18), day schools are dying.  If the same people started donating in multiples of mavet, or death (equaling $446), he said, perhaps the schools would live.

George Hanus may be on to something.

Moshe Sokolow is professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University.

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