In religious Jewish communities, the affordability of day schools is one of the most discussed social challenges. Supporting vibrant, successful, viable Jewish day schools is no less than supporting the Jewish future – our children are our future, and the values we demonstrate and pass on will determine what they will do with the torch when they are its bearers.
Rising school costs along with a continuing recession have combined to create a crisis in the survival of Jewish day schools. While estimates vary, it is clear that tuition costs have outstripped the ability of many families to pay. One report in 2010 estimated that most Jewish day schools charged about $15,000-$20,000 per student per year, with some charging more than $30,000 year. Among the schools charging the highest tuition is the Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, where the annual tuition is $32,155. In addition, there is an annual security fee of $700, and new students pay a one-time fee of $1,500. This does not count the expected parental contribution toward several fundraising efforts each year, or the flat fee for textbooks. To be sure the school offers a high-quality Jewish education, but how many families can afford to send their children there?
At the other end of the day school spectrum are the elementary and middle schools of Baltimore, which average $8,650 per student annually. While this sounds reasonable, it should be remembered that the average annual gross income of Baltimore families is far less than $50,000. Thus, an Orthodox family that sends three children to day school will spend $25,950 each year in tuition. After taxes and synagogue expenses, Orthodox Baltimore households are using all available funds for day school. The continuing Great Recession has exacerbated this crisis, and scholarship money is not often available. Many families are now at, or past, the point where they can afford to send their children to day school. As Zipora Schorr of Baltimore’s Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School noted: “Those for whom day schools are expendable will opt out unless we find a way to keep them there — this is the biggest crisis to our Jewish future.”
In Baltimore, some Orthodox rabbis have begun interpreting tzedakah in such a way that half of all disbursements should go to local needs such as day school scholarships. At the same time, some observers have noted additional problems resulting from high tuition—parents working several jobs and thus not being available to spend time with their children; students discouraged from becoming community-serving professionals like teachers and social workers because these careers do not pay enough to support a Jewish family; and families that will fall from the position of contributing to society to being forced to ask for charity.
Fortunately, there may be a more promising future for Jewish day schools. Most proposed solutions fall out into one of the following ten options:
1. Increase philanthropic support to Jewish schools (or offer low-cost loans);
2. Increase state funding of secular subjects within day schools (or move toward the British model of state-funding);
3. Cut down school expenses without cutting quality (raise student-teacher ratio, move to smaller facilities, follow an administrative cost-sharing model, encourage regional benchmark standards, use green technology to cut energy costs, etc.);
4. Increase revenue (rent school space, hold community programs, charge for adult education, establish an alumni database and engage in alumni support drives, encourage current families to contribute to giving programs before graduation, etc.);
5. Restructure how much each family has to pay based upon income (for example, establish a percentage of family income as tuition);
6. Insist upon having only community Jewish schools (which include different Jewish study tracks for students of different backgrounds);
7. Connect Jewish schools nationwide to ensure collaboration and cost-sharing enables all local schools to grow;
8. Give family discounts when volunteers increase involvement and support of the school;
9. Increase enrollment to increase funding; and
10. Explore alternatives to day school (charter schools, public schools, supplemental education programs, etc.).
Families are struggling to meet costs in our recession, and this issue must be addressed more urgently. Furthermore, as Jews, we have major philanthropic responsibilities to address locally, nationally, and globally. A primary purpose of our day school system must be to train our children to fulfill these global moral responsibilities. If the day school system cripples our potential as givers, it has defeated its purpose. If day schools decrease in number and reach, the number of Jewish children who identify with Jewish values such as tzedakah and tikkun olam will also decrease. This in turn will lead to fewer contributions to the vulnerable and poor in our society, let alone to Jewish day schools. We need to prevent this cascade of problems. For one example of an initiative that is working to tackle this issue, see the Jewish Day School Affordability Knowledge Center, a joint project between the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and the Orthodox Union.
The day school system is potentially the most powerful way of educating, empowering, and activating our Jewish youth base to grow as global Jewish leaders, and is therefore crucial to the future of the Jewish community. We must reprioritize our wealth to ensure that we leverage our personal and communal funds to address the most pressing moral issues of our time. If we do not repair our financially broken day school system, we risk becoming overwhelmed by its burden and becoming less relevant in the cosmic unfolding of human history. Now is the time to change the paradigm.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"