Day School Advocacy Campaign

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(In line with the suggestion made by one of its readers, I am posting the following from the RJJ Newsletter just out. )

There is at long last heightened awareness of the tuition crises confronting a great and growing number of religious families. After years of silence about the subject, despite powerful evidence that constantly rising tuition begets enormous pain, there is talk that something needs to be done. This is good news, yet before we start celebrating we need to recognize that we are far from being out of the woods, that any effort to provide meaningful relief to families that deserve relief faces long odds.

I have raised the tuition issue for nearly the entirety of my one-third of a century as RJJ’s president. As much as I may want to think or claim otherwise, my advocacy has essentially failed. Torah Umesorah – the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools has been extremely negligent in this area and its once glorious record has been tarnished. Roshei Yeshiva have been occupied with other causes and other issues. Over the years I have been a lone voice protesting against the wrongness of an attitude that makes yeshiva education into a consumer product and the wrongness of an attitude that results in stress and pain in some of the best families that we have.

As this newsletter is being written, I am at the halfway point in a campaign, expressed through a series of full-page messages that are appearing in the Jewish Press that aim to challenge the prevailing notion that basic Torah education is not a communal responsibility. It is telling that Hamodia and Yated Ne’eman, the English-language weeklies that serve the yeshiva world and certain chasidic sectors, turned down these messages because they did not want to go into controversial territory. What we need, in fact, is more discussion and debate and not only about tuition but about a wide range of issues affecting American Orthodoxy.

We have become afraid of controversy, even afraid of disagreement. In my youth, at the Agudah conventions and elsewhere, Gedolei Torah often disagreed with one another and they did not shy away from dealing with subjects that might breed dissent. They also had no problem with laymen taking positions on key issues, including those that were controversial. Without advocacy that is accompanied by a good dose of passion, there is scant prospect that the tuition situation will be improved.

Even with the most effective advocacy, the odds are quite long against significant improvement in the short term. As one of the as yet unpublished Jewish Press messages underscores, yeshiva and day school education in the New York metropolitan area alone costs about one-billion dollars a year. That’s without taking into account capital expenditures for new and improved facilities or the cost of Beth Medrash and seminary programs, kollels and certain other religious educational activities. The obvious point is that Torah education is now extremely costly and expenses will continue to rise, with parents bearing a growing share of the burden because our schools must pay their staffs and bills.

While personnel costs obviously account for by far the largest share of the typical yeshiva budget, three other expenses provide insight into the hardship schools face as they try to make ends meet, a hardship that in turn is passed on to parents, too many of whom are trying to make ends meet. After 9/11, there were massive increases in the cost of insurance. It was also necessary for schools to devote scarce resources to ensuring security and this too has been costly. In the wake of Katrina and other events, energy costs have gone through the roof; as winter approaches, many schools are wondering how they will meet their fuel bills.

Torah education is a costly matter and getting more costly, although nearly all yeshivas and many day schools actually underspend because they are forced to cut back on vital services. Even if contributions rise, we have a long way to go until there will be meaningful relief. But we must begin. In part, our schools must pay more attention to fundraising and be more creative in this area. This means that lay leaders of yeshivas and day schools do not fulfill their responsibility when their role is essentially limited to setting tuition, limiting scholarship assistance and hoping that the annual dinner will be successful. They have to do a better job at fundraising than most of them are now doing.

However, if the status quo regarding communal support is not challenged and changed, even with the best of intentions few lay leaders will be able to avoid making decisions that essentially mean that parents have to pay more each year, irrespective of how limited they are financially.

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2 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    This is not just a crisis in Orthodoxy, or even Judaism. This seems to be a general issue all over the US, both for private K-12 education and for university education.

    It wasn’t that long ago, historically speaking, when high school / Yeshiva education was a sign of status and university education was reserved for the children of the rich, who could pay, and the very intelligent and studious, who got scholarships. Today high school is considered a bare minimum, and university degrees are almost the norm.

    This was accomplished, to a degree, through greater social financing of education – whether by taxes and governments, or by donations. Another factor was educators who were willing to settle for a lower standard of living than they could achieve doing other jobs. Today the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way – towards parents-financed education and educators who expect to be paid according to their skill level.

    In industry, we managed to reduce the cost of training by using more technology. A lot of the routine subjects are handled by Web Based Training, which is more expensive to produce but has a much lower cost per student. This frees trainers to teach more complicated subjects.

    I wonder if we could do something similar for K-12.

  2. Menachem Schechter says:

    I could not agree more. I have been talking about the brewing tuition crisis for some time, and the response has been at best, non-committal. People seem to accept it as a fact of life, all the while wondering how they are going to pay the bills, and figuring out how a larger family will impact their financial position. The high cost of Yeshiva education does more put a financial strain on American Orthodoxy. It causes families to make decisions between a larger family and paying the bills – scholarship assistance is there, but no-one wants to plan on relying on that. It also makes a family’s decision on Yeshiva vs. public school, for families on the fringes of Orthodoxy, that much easier. Rationalizing public school with some Hebrew Sunday School is allot easier when Yeshiva education is $10K+ per child per year.
    I think not nearly enough is being done to address these issues, and that is not surprising considering how few people want to acknowledge the issues in the first place.
    I look forward to additional comments in this space where we can put forth potential solutions as well as creating awareness for the crisis at hand.
    Menachem