June 8, 2006
Mortgage-poor parents struggle with tuition in Los Angeles' overheated economy.
In the past six years, Diane Demetras and her husband, Marcel Indik, have taken one low-cost vacation and have dined out only on rare occasions. They don't buy themselves new clothes, they drive old cars and rent movies rather than go to them because weekend activities have been whittled down to what is cheapest.
They've done this -- willingly and without regrets -- so they could afford to send their two children, Emile and Olivia, to Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, where they feel their kids are getting a great education, a grounding in Jewish tradition and a sense of belonging to a values-based community.
The Demetras-Indiks are solidly middle class. She is an academic adviser at USC and he is a successful commercial photographer. They co-own the fourplex they live in, and, if not for the $30,000-plus a year they spend on their kids' school and camp (that's including a few thousand dollars in financial aid), they would be considered comfortable in the Southern California economy.
But it is families like theirs who are feeling the squeeze of the upward crawl of day school tuition over the last several years, which has brought the average tuition for elementary and middle school to about $12,600 and for high school to as much as $20,000. Those numbers are about 30 percent above what a year of schooling cost four years ago and nearly double 10 years ago.
To be sure, at secular private schools tuition has risen just as sharply, and often far more so, but non-Orthodox Jewish schools are competing on two fronts: with the lure of fancy private secular schools for many who can afford to pay whatever it takes, on the one hand, and with the tuition-free option of public schools, particularly the gifted magnets or other specialized programs for those who are struggling to make ends meet, on the other. Neither socio-economic group is willing to compromise educational standards, which means Jewish schools have to maintain a high academic bar, but also give the added value of a Jewish education -- making the latter a convincing selling point to those who might opt for just Sunday school enrichment.
Most of the 10,000 students in Los Angeles' Jewish day schools come from families with too much income to qualify for significant financial aid, but many are not wealthy enough to easily absorb such a significant hit on their budget. And there are also those who do not see themselves as "scholarship families," and who choose therefore to send their kids to public schools rather than open their financial records for the aid applications.
About 14 percent of school-age Jewish children in Los Angeles are enrolled in day schools, the majority of them in Orthodox schools.
In the past 15 years, day school enrollment across the country has boomed. Between 1992 and 1998, enrollment jumped by 25,000 students, and from 1999 to 2004, another 20,000 students enrolled, bringing the total to 205,000 nationwide. Much of the growth occurred in non-Orthodox schools, new schools and in high schools.
While Los Angeles has generally mirrored that growth, in the past five years the number of students enrolled in L.A. day schools declined by about 400 students. Last year saw a turnaround, however, with an increase that brought the number close to its 1999 peak of 10,000 students.
But the decline has educators concerned, and while they know that cost is not the only factor -- there was also an overall economic downturn and demographic dip in school-aged children -- tuition increases certainly don't help.
Over the past 11 years, Temple Israel has seen its enrollment increase from 82 children to 200, but the school has had losses, too. Like many families, the Demetras-Indiks had to make a tough choice. Tuition at Temple Israel Day School went from $9,500 four years ago to $12,170 for the next school year. So come this September, Emile will be attending public school for the sixth grade.
"We couldn't handle the cost anymore," Demetras said.
Diminished day school enrollment -- or enrollment from a narrow socioeconomic stratum -- hurts the entire Jewish community. Population studies have shown that day school alumni are more likely to retain a lifelong affiliation rate with Judaism, and to educate their own kids Jewishly. Day school graduates, in a sense, boost the knowledge base of the entire community.
"We have learned so much about what keeps kids Jewish in this world that is always pulling at them, and the day school movement is such an important contributor to the Jewish people. To not be able to make a day school education affordable for people who want it is an awful alternative," said Rennie Wrubel, head of school at Milken Community High School.
Over the past decade, with increasing sophistication, schools are looking to sources other than tuition to make ends meet. They are setting up endowment funds, ramping up marketing both to potential parents and donors, and nurturing new supporters -- from alumni and grandparents to people and foundations previously unconnected to day schools.
"If we believe in this, and we believe in how powerful it is -- and some of us do -- then we have got to have the whole community get behind all of our efforts," said Bruce Powell, head of school at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills. Powell believes a massive communal endowment -- $1 billion -- needs to be set up to cover the cost of Jewish education.
Lisabeth Lobenthal couldn't agree more. Lobenthal is a synagogue director who put her son, Aaron, at Temple Beth Am's Pressman Academy for kindergarten. A single mother who does not receive child support, Lobenthal was making $48,000 a year when she applied for financial aid. She tried to make do with the $2,500 break on the tuition of about $9,000 -- she was told it was the maximum she could receive and never asked for more -- but once she paid for tuition, rent, basic bills and groceries, she was, literally, penniless.
"They called me for a donation for a pizza party, and I couldn't give them the $10," Lobenthal said.
She pulled Aaron out in first grade and put him in public school, where he's been happy, but his Jewish identity has suffered. Now 11, Aaron hates Hebrew school.
"I'll be happy if I can get him to have a bar mitzvah," Lobenthal said.
Currently, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), a Federation agency, allocates $2.35 million to Los Angeles' day schools. For the past two years, the wheels have been turning to set up a $20 million endowment fund for day school education. The Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation have each pledged $1 million to the fund, and are working with BJE to secure lead donors. The interest from the endowment -- about $1 million annually -- would leverage endowment dollars raised in the schools at a rate of 25 cents to the dollar. So if a school raised $1 million for its endowment, the fund would then pay the school an additional $250,000, according to Miriam Prum-Hess, the director for day school operational services at BJE. That approach, rather than, say, discounting every child's tuition, works for a city the size of Los Angeles. With nearly 10,000 students, a community fund to discount tuition by $2,000 per child would cost $20 million. With this model, schools have incentive to raise their own money, and then can use the money however best suits the particular schools.
Other communities have managed to generate large gifts in the last two years. In late 2004, three philanthropists gifted $45 million to Boston's 16 day schools, and other communities have seen numbers between $13 million and $20 million.
"I have found a great willingness among major Jewish philanthropists to invest tremendous amounts of capital in models of Jewish education that work," said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).
Elkin also believes that with the right training, technology and motivation, the 759 day schools that serve 205,000 students nationwide can double their annual giving to cover the gap between tuition revenue and what it costs to run a school.
In Los Angeles, while some schools have to make up about 10 percent of their budget in fundraising, others find themselves with gaps of 40 percent or more. And with a huge jump in insurance -- particularly workman's comp -- and increased security costs since Sept. 11, as well as the pressure to keep teachers' salary and benefits on par with public schools, raising tuition is a tempting way to make up the shortfall.
But Prum-Hess, who moved into her position at BJE after serving as vice president of allocations for The Federation, hopes that schools can hold the line on tuition by tapping into unrealized revenue potential.
This year, as part of a national Match Grant program, she helped 13 schools raise a combined $1 million from new donors, which earned the schools an additional $500,000 from the Jewish Funders Network and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. Schools also brought in $1 million in homeland security grants, with Prum-Hess's help (see sidebar).
She wants to see schools think more strategically, setting up endowments and seeking bequests.
"I think the biggest problem that day schools have is that many live hand to mouth and it's very hard to think beyond the immediate when that is the way you operate," she said.
Change is coming slowly. A handful of schools have already started endowments.
Emek, an 824-student Orthodox school in Sherman Oaks, last year set up the Emek Heritage Endowment Fund, asking every family to contribute $200 a year. Now at the end of its second year, the fund garnered 100 percent participation and has $70,000, and administrators hope to reach $1 million within 10 years.
But long-term planning isn't going to help the Katz family (they asked that their real name not be used to protect their privacy). Jennifer is a social worker; David is in the allied medical field. Both have advanced degrees and good jobs. But between the housing market in Los Angeles and the cost of day school -- even with financial aid -- they have made the decision to move to Cleveland this summer. There they can trade up from their two-bedroom duplex to a four-bedroom house that costs $250,000, and they will pay $11,000 less than they do now to send their three children to an Orthodox day school.
"We're just not getting ahead," Jennifer said. "We can't take trips that we want to take to see our family on the East Coast. We've got three kids living in one bedroom. We work too hard for our money to have nothing to show for it."
Prum-Hess calculates that to send two kids to day school and live decently in Los Angeles, a family has to earn about $160,000 annually.
"Part of the message that we need to give is that you might be earning $150,000 and saying 'I'm earning a great salary and I can't pencil out what is wrong,' and we say we know you're not making ends meet, and you need to apply for a scholarship," Prum-Hess advises.
All Jewish schools have scholarship programs, with a wide range of giving levels and procedures for how parents can access than money.
At Milken, tuition and fees for the 600 students is about $24,000 each. The school gave out $1.2 million in scholarship money. New Community Jewish High School, where tuition and fees run about $22,500, has allocated more than $1 million for the 320 kids it has coming in next year.
Pressman Academy, a Conservative K-8 school where the bottom line comes to more than $12,000, gives out $340,000 to its student body of 367. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a Reform elementary school, allocated $200,000 to its 210 students last year to defray the $14,000 price tag. In the school's seven years of existence, the temple has kicked in more that $1.5 million to the school's budget.
The Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood parcels out $77,000 annually among its 200 students, but caps aid at 30 percent of tuition so the school can help more families. On the few occasions where families who apply aren't able to afford the day school, Temple Israel guides them toward the religious school, where no child is turned away for financial reasons.
"It's a very difficult situation for all of us who are passionate about Jewish day school education," Temple Israel Day School head of school Eileen Horowitz said. "We want to be able to help as many families as we can."
Other Reform and Conservative synagogue schools acknowledge that while they only rarely have to turn students away, they don't often see those families that truly can't afford the education. It is an economically self-selected group that even applies.
That is not the case in the Orthodox community, where a day school education is seen as mandatory, even when a family has six, seven or eight kids. Schools that serve the Modern Orthodox population give out about 30 percent to 40 percent of tuition revenues in scholarships every year, compared with 10 percent to 20 percent in non-Orthodox schools.
At the YULA boys high school, last year $1 million was distributed among 195 boys to help cover the $19,000 tuition.
"There is no such thing at YULA as a student unable to attend because of inability to pay tuition," said boys' school principal Rabbi Dovid Landesman. "At the same time, we will put as much pressure as we can on parents who can pay. It has to be their most important priority -- they can't say 'we prefer a Jewish education, but not at the expense of a nice car or going to Puerto Rico for Pesach.'"
The "no child turned away" policy finds extreme expression in the ultra-Orthodox community, where in some schools as much as 80 percent of the student body receives financial assistance, including some who pay only a nominal amount.
At Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Toras Emes, the two principals, Rabbi Berish Goldenberg and Rabbi Yakov Krause, handle financial aid personally. Last year, the school allocated more than $2 million in tuition subvention. Goldenberg estimates that only 350 to 400 of his 1,100 students are paying full tuition, which added to fees comes to about $12,000 a year for the first child (as at most schools, there is a sibling discount and teachers get an automatic break).
The parent body includes many teachers at other schools, as well as rabbis and Jewish communal professionals who serve the wider community. Many of them have large families.
Toras Emes is currently phasing in a minimum tuition requirement of $3,500, so that every family is paying something. (Goldenberg expects exceptions to that minimum, too.)
Like most yeshivas, Toras Emes functions in the red, constantly begging and borrowing to make payroll and pay bills.
"This yeshiva exists on miracles, and you only see it when you sit behind this desk," Goldenberg said. "Somehow Hashem [God] takes care of us."
"God will provide" is also the mantra at Chabad schools, which have an open-door policy for anyone who wants a Jewish education.
Rabbi Baruch Hecht, director at the girls' elementary and junior high schools Bais Chaya Mushke and Bais Rebbe, allocates about half his budget toward financial assistance.
"There is no point sitting in my chair if you are not prepared to do what we do," he said. "If you are going to run a Jewish day school, then part of that process is knowing you are going to be handing out scholarships -- a lot of them -- because your mission is to make sure every child has an opportunity for a Jewish education."
But for now, most middle-class families either aren't willing to ask, or don't qualify for much help. Instead, they make lifestyle choices to support their educational goals for their children.
Joanne Helperin went back to work full time when her daughter was 2 so her two kids, now 7 and 4, could attend Maimonides Academy, an Orthodox day school in West Hollywood.
"And I feel guilty about it every day," Helperin says of the need to work full time.
Helperin is a journalist, the senior features editor at Edmunds.com. Her husband, Robby, is the owner and bandleader of Spotlight Music and the Simcha Orchestra. Business is booming, but with the high cost of living in Los Angeles combined with day school tuition, they find it hard to refuse the offer of tuition help from the grandparents.
"And the question is, will I be able to do that for my grandchild? And what about college? I think we're going to have to work longer and retire later," Helperin said.
Tuition assistance programs that have sprung up in small communities across the country over the past five or six years are aimed at precisely this demographic. In Morris County, N.J., tuition was automatically capped at $5,500 for families who earn less than $120,000, and those who earn more can qualify, too.
In the Bay Area, the Levine-Lent Family Foundation set a goal of doubling the number of day school students in Northern California by the year 2010. In 2002, the foundation gave every child enrolling in the newly opened Kehilla Jewish High School a $9,000-a-year tuition voucher for four years, and the following year entering students were offered $7,000 vouchers. The school had expected 18 students in its first class; 34 enrolled, and half of those students had not gone to a Jewish elementary school.
But with 10,000 students at 37 schools, a similar endeavor in Los Angeles would cost tens of millions of dollars -- a daunting figure.
The Avi Chai Foundation, a leader in promoting day school education, launched a pilot program in 1998 in day schools in Atlanta and Akron, Ohio. Students were given $3,000 vouchers, but analysts concluded that while the vouchers did help attract and retain students, more important factors were the child's happiness and the quality of the education.
"The cost of education is not the only challenge the day school world has," said Elkin of Boston's PEJE. "We have to market Judaism. We have to market the quality of the education, we have to deal with concerns about ghettoization, concerns that that the schools are too narrow and that kids will be socially crippled when they get out of school. There is a whole range of selling we have to do. There is no silver-bullet panacea for the day school world."
In Los Angeles, where the non-Orthodox day schools compete for students not just with public schools, but also with other private schools -- which cost more and are often perceived as offering more than day schools -- competition has increased among the Jewish schools, which is one of the reasons tuition has gone up. Schools vie for the best teachers and pay for extras to attract kids who might end up at Harvard-Westlake or Buckley.
"We want great teacher-to-student ratios, and great science labs and great sports," said Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. "We want an orchestra and computers and art and dance and music -- and, and, and. It costs a lot of money and I'm not embarrassed or ashamed of that fact. It simply needs to be made a priority and we need to go out and raise it," he said.
Powell of New Community Jewish High School agrees. "How can we do any less 60 years after the Holocaust, when we have not even replaced the 6 million? How can we turn Jewish kids away from Jewish school, kids who want to learn how to live a joyful Jewish life?"