A Unified Theory of Jewish Day School Sustainability?

by Jon Mitzmacher

I am sitting at JFK International Airport typing on my iPad, charging my iPhone, and missing my iFamily. But airports are sometimes ideal places for forced reflection, and these hours waiting for my flight home have provided me some much-needed time to reflect on the relationship between the recently held edJEWcon conference and a meeting I was privileged to attend this morning at the AVI CHAI Foundation.

edJEWcon, which was sponsored by AVI CHAI and the Schechter Day School Network, was an attempt to bring 21 Jewish day schools and 14 partner agencies together for an “Institute on Teaching & Learning.” If you look through all the sessions offered at edJEWcon, you will not find one that deals with “financial sustainability.”

So why would the good folks at PEJE ask me to blog about how edJEWcon impacts financial sustainability?

I believe it is because the field has been keenly interested in seeing how educational technology might positively impact the budgets of Jewish day schools, and not just the quality of instruction. If online, virtual, or blended learning can reduce the cost of Jewish day school education while increasing (or at least maintaining) the quality of Jewish day school education, we might find a so-called Unified Theory of Jewish Day School Affordability.

There are two assumptions about this theory and the AVI CHAI-sponsored meeting I attended this morning, to my surprise, challenged both.

  1. It could be that outsourcing content creation, including course instruction and assessment, to online vendors—either General or Jewish Studies – will in fact lead schools to reduce their faculties. It is not clear that Jewish day schools, unless they are start-ups that see outsourcing content creation as part of their core mission, are prepared to really reduce their faculties. It could be that the content is not yet sufficiently adequate. Or that the content is not yet sufficiently adaptable. Or that a lack of sufficient benchmarks across all forms of Jewish day schools allows for the creation of affordable content.
  2. And it could be that, when push comes to shove, we really do believe that teachers make a huge difference and we aren’t ready yet to make painful decisions.

Judging from today’s conversation, the answer appears to be all of the above.

If the rush to embrace 21st century learning and educational technology does not lead to cost-cutting for Jewish day schools, it’s hard to imagine it contributing meaningfully to a conversation about financial sustainability. In fact, if not managed appropriately, 21st century learning even runs the risk of making schools less financially sustainable because of increased technology costs.

My “a-ha” moment came in conversation with Rebecca Coen, founding head of a new high-tech Orthodox Yeshiva in Los Angeles called Yeshiva High Tech. We were talking after the meeting, and it occurred to me that part of the dissonance I experience in these meetings comes from different markets, given that non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jewish day schools are all scrambling to maintain and add to their student populations.

From Coen’s perspective, her population cannot afford the tuition of Jewish day school, period. They are choosing public school over Orthodox Jewish day school. Her only option is to provide the best possible education for the lowest possible price (that is my interpretation not her words) and educational technology may, indeed, allow her to do this.

For me, however, even though there are plenty of families who cannot afford our tuition and are choosing public school, there are also plenty of families who can afford our tuition (or more), but are choosing to spend it on elite secular independent schools. Lowering my tuition is not going to attract them. Increasing the quality of my school hopefully will. Investing in 21st century learning and educational technology may, indeed, allow me to do this.

These are just the experiences of two schools. I want to know more. Have birth rates changed this conversation? Do Orthodox families have more children to the degree that Jewish day school is simply not affordable regardless of the means of the family? What is the percentage of non-Orthodox families who have the means, but choose to spend it elsewhere?

Twenty-first century learning may indeed provide important paths toward the financial sustainability of Jewish day school, but it might take more than one form depending on the model or movement. These are exciting times, as schools, agencies, and foundations are ready to dream dreams. The crisis of day school affordability is very real. The promise of 21st century learning and educational technology is equally real. I look forward to more conversations, more experiments, more research, and more sharing. Whether there is one answer or many, it will take us all to discover them.

Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, in Jacksonville, Florida.

cross-posted with PEJE blog