A New, Ugly Wrinkle in the Tuition Crisis

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There is a new kind of captive in the making, but do not expect to see any pidyon shvuyim effort on his or her behalf. This new prisoner is a sad by-product of the tuition crisis, and has not yet impressed people as worthy of inclusion on the short list of the most serious problems over which we agonize. Yet it is pitting whole groups of frum Jews against others, and threatens a dynamic of cooperation that has worked for as long as people can remember. The working professional increasingly feels frustrated and alienated by the “system” – at least insofar as it relates to the finances of mosdos of chinuch.

We all know that schools are growing more desperate in addressing shortfalls in revenue brought on by escalating costs and a prolonged ailing economy. Schools have little control over external funding like donations, so they push where they can, which increasingly means the portion of the parent body that they perceive to have some wiggle room. They can’t squeeze those who simply don’t have, so they raise tuition year after year. They know that the poor and the underemployed won’t produce more, but they are all on tuition assistance. Where there are no sugar-daddies available, it is the middle class that is asked to cough up more each year, subsidizing those who are in far more desperate financial straits.

Actually, they are not asked. They are told. The money is demanded, and they have no choice but to comply. In many communities, there are no alternative schools that will meet their expectations of Torah chinuch. They can be made to dance like puppets on a string. They are trapped by the “system:” they cannot deny Torah education to their children, so they have no choice but to sign over a progressively part of their income to their schools. They are trapped, as surely as is the shavui.

The reader will marvel at how selfish and uncharitable these people are! They should be grateful to the Ribbono Shel Olam that they are in a position to be able to give more, and not among those who have to take more!

Not so fast. This is not about money alone.

There are very few among the bulk of the working middle class who are earning so much that they can afford to pay tuition levies for multiple children without belt tightening, even with a spouse working part- or full-time. Day-school tuitions can commonly run 12-25K per child, and even higher. Non-commuter high schools take an even bigger bite. Do the arithmetic, and calculate what that means for a family with four, five, or more children in Torah schools – but translate the figures into the pre-tax dollars that are necessary to generate those sums.

Here is where it gets ugly. I wouldn’t write about this so openly if this were not already the dirty secret that everybody knows. The changed realities of the New Economy mean that people are having fewer children. I have no idea whether they are asking shaylos, or paskening for themselves. I am speaking of people who are medakdek b’halacha, people with years of yeshiva and seminary training. They would like to have more children; they are not electing otherwise because they want summer homes, new cars, and Pesach in Italy. Those are not part of the equation. They are limiting family size because they cannot see how, bederech hateva, they can fork over those tuition checks for another child.

Here is where it gets really ugly. This equation is creating class warfare, of the kind that we may not have seen since people with means bought replacements for their children drafted during the dark days of the Cantonist decrees. The poor were victimized by the “khappers” who seized their children to replace those of the rich. Today, the unborn children of the more well to-do are being seized by tuition policies of day schools. And the resentment of the middle class is focused not only on the school board, but on the less affluent.

The middle class parent, already strapped for cash, notes that his school offers tuition assistance to a wide group of recipients. He cannot and does object to tuition reduction to the unemployed, or the family struck by illness, or the family headed by a single parent. He also notes, however, that ten community rabbonim get tuition breaks, as well as twenty kollel yungerleit. Fifteen rabbeim on the faculty get tuition breaks, and keep having more children. He fully recognizes that free or reduced tuition is not a perk, but a cost-efficient way for the school to compensate for the inadequate salary offered to faculty. He does not question that. But he knows that there is a cost associated with every child. Should there be no limit to the number of faculty children whose tuition is excused? He asks himself whether it is fair that those who can afford more children least seem to have them without limit, while he and his wife have had to limit the size of their family.

This is not to say that having children must or should be a financial decision. For most frum Jews, having additional children is a question of bitachon. The irony is that in many instances when klei kodesh have more children, they needen’t have bitachon that HKBH will provide for them – they have bitachon that HKBH will provide for the baal habos down the block who is de facto going to bear the tuition burden for that additional child (typically, the single biggest cost associated with an additional child). When that same baal habos – the one who is actually footing the bill, working long hours, having a spouse work, not being able to spend as much time in the beis medrash as he would like – is going through his own bitachon issues over whether to have another child, while the klei kodesh needn’t struggle with the same issue, resentment builds.

If a shul hires a new rov, why should his four children be entitled to any tuition assistance, when it translates into a demand on the baal habos who does not even daven in his shul? Should it not be the responsibility of the shul to pay salaries that will allow the rov to pay his tuition obligation without thrusting him upon a small group from whom it is demanded that they foot the bill? Some people want to bring a kollel to town? Wonderful! Our middle class workers learned in kollel themselves years ago. But let the sponsors of the kollel do the fund raising, rather than have their kollel members deposit their children on the school house steps, and expect a large tuition break.

What the system lacks is an understanding that when a tuition break is given, that money is not “free;” someone pays for it. By granting tuition breaks to those employed by mosdos, the system has simply shifted the burden of raising those necessary funds from the mosod to the school, and by extension, to the middle-class parents who have no choice but to pay the resulting increased “full” tuition amount in the most tax-inefficient way imaginable. Were the system not shifting tuition burdens in this way, each mosod would have to raise tution dollars for its employees and balei battim would have a choice as to whether or not to donate to the mosdos. If they chose to – and many would if tuition burdens were relaxed – their donations would be tax deductible. Instead, balei baatim are forced to subsidize mosdos through a chinuch “tax.” often at the cost of increased working hours and/or spouses working who might not otherwise. Many balei baatim would willingly support local mosdos but few would have their spouse take a job solely to do so. Our current burden-shifting system often leaves them no choice.

Please, dear reader, do not shoot the messenger. I am conveying facts and feelings, not a halachic analysis nor hashkafic advice. There is a groundswell of resentment of the kind I described above. Getting angry at me will not make it go away. I am reporting reality, not taking sides.

The middle class feels played and extorted. They realize that the kollel families struggle; they are not blind to that. They don’t want to be told that they must underwrite every case of need in their school community. Some of those cases are optional to the school. The burden could be shifted elsewhere. Instead, it is placed on them. They are angry.

The school, in fact, if pressured enough, may go back to the board of the kollel and try to play hardball. The kollel’s board pushes back, and influence peddlers get involved. Now the conflict escalates, and those who used to see themselves as supporters of the kollel see it as part of the problem. This is a tragic wrinkle to the overall tuition crisis and a new source of in-house dissension in our midst.
The problem spirals out of control. Why, asks the middle class, should we hire a new rebbi with six children to fill a vacancy, when it means providing free tuition to six kids? (No one questions that the rebbi is underpaid, no matter how many or how few children he has.) With a surplus of rebbis available, hire one with only two children! Or stipulate with all personnel who benefit from contractually stipulated tuition reduction that the break is limited to two children, after which it is up to them to figure out how to support them – just like the middle class is having to deal with it. Should it be the payers of full tuition who have to limit their family size, while others do not? (Again, I am reporting feelings, not validating responses.) In some cases, it simply does not pay for a professional to work any harder and generate more income, because a large part (and in some cases 100%) of anything more her or she earns will be set upon by the school. (I recently spoke to a 10-year rebbi with 6 children who, after years of struggling with the financial stress of making $60,000 a year – albeit paying virtually no tuition – was considering going to law school. He was advised that should he go and do well, he could expect a starting salary of $160,000. However he was also advised that he should not expect to have a dime more in his pocket when he started working then he had as a rebbi. The entirety of his increased earning would go to Uncle Sam and school tuition.) Should not those who toil longer hours be able to do so for the benefit of their own families first, and not have their money and labor seized by an enforced socialism so severe in its effect, that it makes Obamacare look like a Republican project?

The questions are good ones; there are real equity issues here. Some schools wing it, and simply allow need to dictate increasing pressure on the middle class, asking the haves to subsidize more of the have-nots each year. Other schools will ask a shaylah, which doesn’t always work much better. Whatever the answer, some who are not happy with it will blame it on the alleged incompetence of posek X, who should have been bypassed in favor of posek Y. Much better would be policy agreed upon by a large group of poskim and gedolim, but we have not seen that kind of reaction in quite a while.

Is this a new problem? Yes! The gemara solved it, in earlier times. Mi-dina d’gemara, the entire community, not just the parent body of a particular school, pays for the chinuch of local children. The entire community can be assessed and made to pay for essential services. According to teshuvos over centuries, the some assessments are spread equally, and some are graduated according to income. In many cases, a compromise was implemented whereby half of it was a head tax, and the other half graduated.) The disappearance of the kehillah system, however, means that what should be happening according to halacha is not an option. We have no way of taxing the rich.

A generation ago, the problem was not as ubiquitous as it is today. Schools lived with the reality that fundraising would account for a large part, if not the majority, of the yearly budget. Much has changed since then. The numbers of children in schools was a fraction of what it is today, and a smaller number of gevirim (particularly Holocaust survivors who had done extremely well on American shores, and understood the need to support new mosdos of Torah) gave generously. Non-Orthodox Jews were approachable as donors for heimishe tzedakos; today, secular Jewish donors direct most of their money to non-Jewish projects. People did not question as much the “entitlement” of underpaid klei kodesh to subsidized tuition for their children.

I propose no solutions to this problem, no more than I can to the overall tuition crisis. I have proposed a contribution to a solution, however, and I will reiterate it. Our tzedaka giving is governed by nothing by hefkerus, while it should be guided by halacha. We need to educate – and, yes, enforce – the destination of tzedakah funds. Some poskim feel that 2/3 or more of our charitable funds stay local. Let’s be liberal, for the sake of argument, and only ask for half, as Baltimore did a few years ago on a voluntary basis. Schools, perhaps, cannot live with voluntarism. Part of granting tuition assistance should be an examination of charitable giving. Schools could stipulate (assuming poskim would agree with such a proposal) that they are entitled to a given (large) percentage of the 50% of the portion earmarked for local need. (Yes, there would have to be some way to accommodate families sending children to multiple schools.) It won’t balance the budget, but it could ease the escalating burden now placed on the successfully employed.

If no one does anything about this problem, we are going to see class warfare within our ranks.

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155 Responses

  1. J says:

    This discussion looks like it has petered out but I will put two more cents in.
    Great article and great comments. R Maryles and others alluded to a key issue here. In the ‘olden’ days, day schools could fundraise across the community and across the country. (Don’t we all still get ‘stuff’ from Hebrew Academy in Cleveland?) This was because “Torah” meant “Day Schools.” But now, “Torah”, means “Lakewood”, “Mir”, the local community Kolel, your sons-in-law that you are supporting for x years, etc. etc. Every dollar sent to the latter is deprived from the former. Think how much more money would be available for local Day Schools if people weren’t supporting their sons and daughters after marriage in Kolel. As a community we must somehow get our priorities straight and get back to the original definition of “Torah” from a Tzedaka perspective.

    Another point someone made: In previous generations the Rabbeim lived in Apartments and drove Dodge Darts. That’s true. We simply lucked out to get our chinuch on their backs. My contemporaries who chose Chinuch are no more willing to do so then I am. Just ‘cuz we were lucky enough to ‘mooch’ of the previous generations’ mechanchim is no reason to assume that we could do the same for our generation’s American born and raised Mechanchim.

  2. Shmuel H says:

    When I was a child in yeshiva, rabbis lived in apartments and drove Dodge Darts. Not any longer. Many rabbis live in just as large home, if not larger than most of the community recycling new cars every three years when their lease expires. One thing I have learned over the years – when there is a fiscal surplus the administration raises rabbis salaries or expands its campus putting the school back in debt. Let’s be honest – the yeshiva system has a dual objective of educating children AND providing a livelihood for rabbis. Why do rabbis get paid more than secular teachers in the same school? Why do rabbis get a full tuition discount when secular teacher get a percentage of a discount? A yeshiva rabbi with four children being 100% subsidized has a salary equivalent to 200k!!! Not a bad gig and let’s not forget about parsonage that rabbis declare rendering a portion of their income tax free or the “rabbi price” for children in summer camp or shul membership etc. Communities would really be in an uproar if these non profit yeshivas disclosed their books to the parent body. Rabbis should have to pay full tuition for their children and apply for a scholarship, if need be, as everyone else.

  3. Malkie says:

    For those looking for an affordable, alternative, albeit out of the box option, technology offers us room613.net for your educational needs.
    Also, I think people who are able, should do research into different cities and move to cities where the schools run are run more to their liking. In this way, schools will have to get organized if they want to keep their families.

  4. Hadassah Gefen says:

    A related issue, which I have seen cause much resentment is when klei kodesh families live better than the middle class families that are paying full tuition. Usually the lifestyle is being bank rolled by wealthy family members – and it is not their generosity that causes resentment – but the assumption that while the big house is being built by mom and dad, or the car is being leased by grandma, the tuition break is still in place. I am afraid that the assumption is in most cases correct.

    Nobody wants to subsidize tuitions of families living in beautiful homes and driving late model cars.

  5. atara goldfarb says:

    My husband and I are among the “middle class” families who are working hard to pay for our lifestyles, including yeshiva tuition. Your article definitely touched a nerve for me and I’d like to make the following comments.

    It doesn’t bother me so much that I’m being asked to pay full or nearly-full tuition. I feel the yeshivos were very accommodating to us when we were having financial difficulties and I’m grateful to be in a position where we now have income to pay for things like tuition. What bothers me more is the disrespect we are given by the frum society and by the schools. It’s not an obvious “in your face” disrespect, but it is a lack of recognition of the difficulties I have as a working parent. So many working parents (mothers, in particular) feel that the school are being run at the convenience of the teachers, with no thought for the parents who are working in other fields. Let’s face it. The school wouldn’t run without teachers, but they also wouldn’t run without tuition being paid by the “middle income”, two-income households. So why don’t the schools work as hard to accommodate working parents as they seem to do for the teachers/rebbeim? Why isn’t there a daycare option for the days before Pesach when I’m still at work, even though the teachers “need” to have off because hey, they have to make Pesach, too. So there I am, with never quite enough vacation time, and still having to hire childcare because the school is closed. Or that whole last week of school when for some reason the yeshiva has only half days? Is my tuition going to be reduced because I have to arrange for childcare for my sons who are coming home at 1PM?

    Two other areas that I’d like to comment on: A salary of $60,000 is a very generous salary in today’s economy. I think people who work in yeshivos and learn in kollels really don’t have an idea as to what “working” people actually earn. And that’s not even mentioning the summers off. I’ll make every rebbe a deal. I won’t mention summers off, and you don’t mention how hard you work. Because let me tell you something. The rest of us are not sitting on our laurels, taking coffee breaks all day long. The second issue that I still want to throw in to this discussion are the kollel wives and rebbeim’s wives and teachers who don’t work or work very part time jobs. I understand this is a personal choice and I begrudgingly accept your decision to make that choice, even though a portion of your tuition has now been put into my lap. What bothers me is that there’s a perception that what I’m doing, i.e. struggling as a working mother to earn an income so that I can pay for things like tuition and my own groceries, is somehow less important or less worthy than being a rebbe or a morah or staying home with your children.

    Again, it’s not that I mind being required to pay tuition. It’s that there’s no respect or accommodations made, by the school or by the society, for people like me who are working hard to earn the income to pay for that tuition.

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to put these thoughts out in a public forum. I don’t think the financial issue is going to be easy to fix. But the attitude given to tuition-paying parents is something that can be worked on, at no expense to anyone.