New Thinking on the Day School Tuition Crisis

by Wallace Greene

So much has been written and will continue to be written about the tuition crisis. Theories are fine but no new proposals that are realistic have been put forth, hence any meaningful solution is still a distant dream. Statistically, the increasing tuition will not have an impact on the Orthodox day schools. There will be serious life-style changes. No vacations, fewer children in each family, holding on to a car longer, etc. Day-school education is a core value and Orthodox parents will still send their children to day schools, although aliyah is becoming a popular option. Non-Orthodox day schools and early childhood programs will suffer the most, since for many in this population day school is an option.

Some schools have already closed and others are considering mergers. The forecast is bleak, even with all the national megafunds. The amount of money necessary to really make a difference is close to $1 billion.

Consider two scenarios – both within the realm of possibility. Granted that we want the best equipped schools with the most offerings. Granted too that education today is not what it was generations ago. However, if we are in crisis mode we need to take creative and sometimes drastic actions. I don’t necessarily want to return to the old-style classroom or the one-room schoolhouse but is our current edifice complex really necessary? Do we need mega-schools with 1,000 students? Do we really need campuses where the landscaping budget runs to six figures? And here’s the real issue: Do we need such a high percentage of non-instructional personnel in our schools? There are simply too many high paying administrators, deans, associate principals, assistant principals, various guidance counselors, extra-curricular coordinators, non-teaching learning specialists, Israel activities coordinators, Hebrew coordinators, student activities coordinators, etc. Times are difficult and hard decisions must be made. My education in the 50s and 60s didn’t suffer because we lacked all these top-heavy administrative positions and I am sure many can echo this sentiment, if they are honest.

The second idea concerns making Jewish education a community priority. Jewish federations cannot realistically be expected to allocate large sums of money to an endeavor in which they are not personally invested. If day schools want to be up there with JCCs, Jewish Family Services, Jewish Community Relations Councils, or even Israel, those involved in them need to be more involved, as well, in federation work.

I know all the arguments against such involvement but you have to be in it to win it. Getting money is a game, and every game has rules. Day-school leaders, as well as parents, cannot afford to be viewed only as takers. We need to be participants in communal life as well. Our parochial concerns need to be articulated to a broader audience.

Federations are too often viewed as the “other.” The truth is that federations function based on who shows up around the table. Work equity often counts as much as large donations. Granted that everyone may not be an “organization man” (or woman). But if the goal is to elevate Jewish education as a community value, we need our spokespeople to make the case.

When I was a day-school principal I insisted on this, and I was able to get parents and lay leaders to serve as volunteers on many different federation committees. Six years later, the majority of the allocations committee was composed of my day-school parents and the money started coming in. It works.

Wallace Greene recently received the 2010 Lifetime Achievement for Jewish Education in the diaspora award at a Jerusalem ceremony for his role in founding the SINAI schools for Jewish children with special needs. A version of this article appeared on the Lookjed List, a project of The Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar Ilan University in Israel.

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  1. With great respect to my colleague Wally, this opinion piece misses the mark by relying on a number of well-worn canards that paint an inaccurate picture of day schools today.

    “The increasing tuition will not have an impact on the Orthodox day schools.”

    Orthodox school leaders are very concerned. Families who need to make lifestyle changes have already done so and the pressure to offer even more financial aid without damaging the quality of education is immense. At a time when demographic research shows that Jewish family building must be a top priority (albeit one difficult to discuss), we cannot accept or advocate for tuition-as-birth-control.

    “Non-Orthodox day schools and early childhood programs will suffer the most, since for many in this population day school is an option.”

    A recent study of day school enrollments by Marvin Schick demonstrated that with the exception of Conservative movement day schools, enrollment is static in both orthodox and non-orthodox sectors. My own research shows that enrollment is, in fact, up in RAVSAK-affiliated schools in Canada, the Western region, and in schools of 300 students or more. Let’s bury this myth once and for all: You do not have to be Orthodox to be an “organic” consumer of Jewish day school.

    “The forecast is bleak.”

    The forecast is far from bleak. There is no question that there will be schools that close, merge or re-size in the coming years, and without a doubt, communities must find new ways to harness enough creativity and support to survive. That said, we cannot let these unfortunate cases define the entire field. All over North America visionary funders are making “game changing” gifts to Jewish day schools. Some of these gifts are for financial aid; others for infrastructure and capital campaigns. How many gifts of over $1 million have been announced this year alone?

    “Do we need mega-schools with 1,000 students?”

    Well, there are so-few “mega-schools” to discuss that this is really a red-herring. The vast majority of day schools in this country have fewer than 300 students. And in further service of dismantling this myth, we note that larger schools have economies of scale that allow them to better weather economic storms.

    “Do we really need campuses where the landscaping budget runs to six figures?”

    Again, the temptation to make a rule from the very rare exception is great, but the truth is that most day schools run on lean budgets and boards of directors generally devote vast amounts of time and careful consideration to how monies are spent. Aesthetics matter, and schools do need to maintain their physical plants not only to preserve their investments but also out of dignity, respect to the neighbors, and for “curb appeal” in attracting new families.

    “Do we need such a high percentage of non-instructional personnel in our schools?”

    As Wally notes. in the 1950′s, Jewish schools had fewer administrators and specialists and as a result, had a lower cost-per-pupil ratio than schools do today. At the risk of tripping over an old saw myself, allow to say “times have changed.” We as a community have done a remarkable job of making a day school education more widely available in more places and to more kinds of Jews than ever before. In the process, we have attended to the reality that schools today must meet the needs of a much broader audience, so yes, schools do need specialists and more professional leaders. This should not be an excuse for excess and “top heavy” schools should consider ways to reduce administrative overhead. Many have.

    “Federations are too often viewed as the “other.””

    In our experience at RAVSAK, the day school sees Federation as a key partner and a highly collaborative one at that. I know that everyone would like to see these partnerships grow and mature (in both directions) and would take Wally’s point as a nudge in the right direction for all of us.

    Let’s get focused on what matters: Day school should not be a conversation about cost, it should be a conversation about value.

  2. Zevi Fischer says:

    Dr. Kramer:

    I enjoyed reading your response and you make a number of valid points. However, it really has to be a conversation about cost. No one disputes the value of a Jewish Education, but at what cost! All the great teaching in the world is rendered valueless when children come home to a family subsumed by the financial pressures of paying for this education. How can the great tools our child gains in school be reinforced in the home, when a parent’s mind is so burdened by the cost.

    Yes, today’s world is different, and we need to educate differently. However, do we honestly need to pay for the things we are paying for today. For example, do we need a computer teacher to teach my child how to use a flip video camera and/or how to use Microsoft Word? A Principal who makes (with benefits) over 300,000 a year? So many assisant principals?

    Yes, it is true, that more money is being donated to Jewish Education than ever before. But, you must investigate, to what is it being donated to ? Wikis? more teacher and principal training, when they already have a masters and PHDs ? more hotel conferences ? more over-the-internet based teaching ? In the old days, there was less money being donated, but it went directly to pay teacher salaries, utility bills, health insurance and for buildings.

    Once again, I truly appreciate the work you, Ravsak and others do. However, the conversation must be one of cost, otherwise the value of a Jewish Education could be rendered meaningless.

  3. I applaud you, Wally for diving into this important discussion.

    First, I would like to underscore something about which we all agree: the importance of cultivating a strong partnership with federation. The focus of such a partnership is not to secure funding, but rather to collaborate in the interest of creating a common vision for an enduring Jewish future. Federations offer a wealth of expertise in critical areas such as marketing, fundraising, and communications. And, that relationship is a two-way street. Schools can offer the community vital educational resources. There is much to learn, and I urge day school and federation leaders to explore the potential synergies.

    Regarding the tuition crisis, our response must be multi-faceted. But it is important first to recognize that those with very little — as well as those with considerable means — are well taken care of by the system. Like Marc Kramer, I disagree with your argument that “the increasing tuition will not have an impact on Orthodox day schools.” We are in the midst of a crisis for the squeezed middle class, regardless of observance level, and it is this population that we need to focus on, in laser-like fashion.
    What are the components of a response to this crisis?

    1) Each day school leader, both lay and professional, must commit to growing its annual fundraising. Given the right tools and a healthy dose of communal support and expertise, I believe that all day schools can significantly increase their annual giving. PEJE wants to impact this area by offering training and coaching for development professionals as well as making the case for schools to hire development professionals.
    2) Day schools must aggressively raise endowment and legacy funds as an integrated part of their giving programs. Financial sustainability lies in a school’s ability to prioritize not only the urgent funding requirements but also the long-term needs of the school.
    3) Leaders must ensure that school quality remains competitive. Day schools need to advocate for their value, and they must do so aggressively. Student recruitment is a key part of this process. Independent school experts have taught us that driving more traffic through schools on individual, escorted visits will result in higher enrollment. The more seats that are ultimately filled, the better the financial picture will be all around. (I recommend two articles that address the topic of increasing outreach efforts: “Admissions: Closing the Deal,” by Pat Bassett of NAIS; and “Marketing Your School in a Touch Economy,” published by Independent School Management.)
    4) Boards and professional leaders within each school must partner with school leaders to help ensure the success of the previous four items.
    5) Day schools must generate auxiliary income through the rental of facilities and the running of additional programs after school hours.
    6) Not only must leaders realize the extraordinary value of building strong partnerships between professional and volunteer leaders, they must also learn how to collaborate effectively with other schools within their geographic area. These alliances will translate to enhanced resource development, better collective messaging, and more robust resources for each school. At PEJE, we continue to be committed to disseminating best practices so that all schools can expeditiously learn from and replicate the success of others.

    One last point regarding Zevi Fisher’s discussion about cost. I respectfully disagree with the argument that we must cut day school programs in the interest of economizing and lowering tuition costs. Of course we need to be mindful about our bottom line. But let’s also consider the consequences of drastic program cuts. Do we really want to return to a stripped down version of Jewish day schools? We cannot risk compromising high educational standards — nor can we risk turning away some of the very same families whom we want to attract.

  4. Gentleman,

    Wow, reading your article and the subsequent comments is all hitting very close to home right about now here in our tiny Southern Jewish Community of 1500 affiliated Jews.

    Our day school leaders are grappling with a severe financial crisis (for us anyway) of a 50k budget deficit that may very well force us to close our tiny Community Jewish day school – mid year! Even with four of our school families taking out personal loans of 20k each to help us get through this tough year it is still not enough. When you are this small a school that relies heavily on a stretched donor base for subsidy, and then you have a bad recruiting year (like we did this year), there really is NO wiggle room. We are indeed looking for a miracle this Hanukah season to save our school.

    So, my question to you all out there in “Jewish Philanthropy Land” is this: Does anybody know of a benevolent angel, who for a one time gift of 50k could literally save a school? We have kids lined up for Kindergarten next year, and a leaner budget (that actually works) if we could just cast off this terrible debt. We haven’t paid the Temple rent for 9 months which must be rectified. We need to pay for the books we ordered and the credit line etc…

    Please let me know if you have any ideas.

    Thanks.

    Mike W.

  5. As a former Federation planner intimately involved with allocations to Jewish Day Schools, and currently working as a Judaic Studies teacher and administrator in two Jewish Day Schools, I feel comfortable being able to talk about both the Jewish Education world and Federation world, and how they intersect.

    Mr. Greene is right about that aspect of Federation life, that day schools need to be supportive of the Federation process, and “play the game”, as it were. However, it should never be viewed cynically – the Fed is not a government trough to lobby and feed at; the moment it begins to think of itself like that, and the moment an organization begins to view it as such, you might as well pack up and go home. I do agree that day schools, and their leadership need to make themselves heard and seen, if only to help keep their unique issues at the fore of community priorities and planning. In my experience, the best day school leaders were those who, in their interactions with Federation, not only helped their own school vis-a-vis allocations, but helped make the allocations process more equitable for the day school community as a whole.

    On the other hand, wearing my teacher/admin “shtreimel”, I am able to see how easy it is for a day school (with its own calendar, pressures and unique needs)to choose to focus on internal matters that relate to the school alone, at the expense of the need to develop community relationships and partnerships, both with other schools and the Federation. Oftentimes, the Federation is only involved solely around grants and allocations, which is understandable, but a shame.

    I do believe that a Federation that makes supporting Jewish Education and its network of Jewish Day Schools a priority (both in good economic times and bad) is a Federation that will be successful on this issue. I believe that it is a false dichotomy that in tough times, you need to increase poverty support at the expense of education support. Both are integral to Jewish communal values and to the mission of a Federation. And in fact, both systems desperately need each other. A community that has strong Jewish Day Schools is a community that develops the next generation of leaders, donors and visionaries. A Federation that makes Jewish Education a central rallying point is a Federation that can’t help but be successful, regardless of the economic times.

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