Different Faiths, Common Challenge

[Jews and Catholics share a common challenge: how to maintain affordable education systems. On October 8th, the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) convened a conversation between Brian Crimmins, CEO of Changing Our World, a full-service fundraising consulting group which works with Catholic and independent schools, and Dan Perla, Program Officer in Day School Finance at the AVI CHAI Foundation. The webinar was part of a Jewish Education Funders Peer Network series and was based on the whitepaper “Different Faiths, Common Challenge: Maintaining the Affordability of a Faith-Based Education,” a collaboration between Erik Goldschmidt of the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College and Dan Perla which was recently published by Changing Our World at the instigation of Senior Director Rachel Chasky. The conversation was moderated by Ruthie Rotenberg of JFN.]

Ruthie: Dan and Brian, perhaps you could each give a brief overview of the schools you work with?

Dan: Sure. First, an important caveat in the paper which I want to highlight. AVI CHAI focuses on a range of schools, including Reform, Community, Schechter, Modern Orthodox, and Centrist Orthodox. It’s about 300 schools in total. Adding yeshivas would more than double that number; however, my comments will refer to that smaller range of schools. The total enrollment for these schools is around 90,000 students. In terms of geography, there is a heavy concentration in New York and on the East coast, and then 8-10 smaller markets throughout the US. The average gross tuition $15-18,000.Roughly 25% of the school budget goes to scholarship.

Brian: A little about the Catholic system: In the past year, there were 6700 Catholic elementary and high schools, with 2 million students enrolled. Hispanics make up 15% of that enrollment. There are two main buckets of schools: diocesan schools, under the supervision of a Bishop; and schools run by religious orders, such as Jesuits. In the paper, Eric Goldschmidt also identified eight subcategories of types of school by governance. We don’t know which model works best; some were developed fairly recently. Historically, religious priests and nuns worked in schools at low costs, what is referred to as the schools’ “living endowment.” Today, the cost of running schools is much higher. This academic year, the average cost of tuition was $3600.

Ruthie: What are the top three challenges you perceive for the schools you work with?

Dan: First, non-Orthodox enrollment. Half the 300 schools are non-Orthodox, and these have on average 30% vacancy. This abundance of seats mostly relates to the perceived value in the non-Orthodox world of a Jewish day school education. The second issue is middle income affordability. In the past we thought about our day school population in terms of the rich, who can afford to pay, and the poor, who need scholarship. But now there is a large middle income group, with six-figure incomes, starting at $150-200,000 and up, for whom day school is becoming just not affordable. Finally, there is the challenge of demographics. We don’t talk about it a lot, but increasingly we see the effects of where Jews are and how they move, both intra-city and intercity. It is hard to predict and plan for.

Ruthie: Could you talk about the major differences between the Catholic system and Jewish day schools?

Dan: The first is socio-demographic differences. These would be less pronounced if were including yeshivas. We see shifts in the types of Catholics and the types of Jews attending our schools. It’s shifting to the right in our world. There are also significant differences in gross and net tuition between Jewish and Catholic schools. I think of our schools as very decentralized and heterogeneous, whereas Catholic schools are very centralized, which creates a big difference for governance purposes.

Brian: Two things jump out at me: First, cost. I have four kids, two in elementary schools. I could count on one hand the number of families in my children’s schools making $200,000 or more. If the school increased tuition by $100, it would be at risk of losing 10-15 families. On the other hand, there are Sacred Heart schools, which charge $35,000 in tuition. Second is changing demographics. There has been declining enrollment amongst Catholics, and non-Catholics are now a majority of the schools.

Ruthie: What are opportunities ripe for collaboration between Catholic and Jewish schools?

Dan: One is government funding. There have been discussions over the years between Catholics and Jews broadly. We both have a vested interest in getting secular teachers funded. We also are interested in creating a scholarship fund open to families including those earning $150,000 or more. A second area is communal funding. AVI CHAI has been involved with a number of pilots involving communal efforts to fundraise, making the case for the value of day school to the broader community. I learned about a case in Wichita, Kansas, where people in the Catholic community voluntarily contribute to the school and tuition is free for the entire diocese. I would love to collaborate around those ideas. The third idea is creating best practices, particularly best financial practices. We could include the National Association of Independent Schools (NIAS) as well. We could then collaborate around those examples: for instance in cost-cutting and joint purchasing.

Brian: I echo Dan’s comments on government funding. There’s a lack of knowledge on what funding is out there and how to go about accessing it. There’s a statistic that hundreds of millions of dollars go unclaimed by religious schools. One additional idea is the concept of consortiums. For instance, there is a mid-Atlantic Catholic school consortium, which is six years old. We are helping them increase their purchasing power, and they have saved $1.2 million in the cost of utilities. They also have banded together to fight for their piece of the pie of government funding. Changing Our World has stepped in because we saw a vacuum of best practices. We do pro-bono webinars on major gift fundraising, strategic fundraising, and endowment building. I haven’t seen enough of that information come to the surface. One amazing success story: A donor to the arch-diocese of New York helped develop an alumni database and fundraising platform. We started with index cards going back to 1945, using home addresses from when the alumni graduated in eighth grade, and our success rate in determining where they live now was 65%. We created a digital hub, the Catholic Online Partnership. The schools have used it to raise more than $10 million. When you think about sustainability, you think about the long-term reach of schools. Being able to use alumni as a resource is important.

Some of them are now on school boards. 60% of donors have given for two to three years, and they are increasing their gifts. We were told that what we did with these schools could never be done, that people had forgotten about their elementary schools. But we hit a nerve: people hadn’t forgotten, and some said their most impactful years were at those schools.

Ruthie: How do we avoid fomenting conversation that assumes we have to make a choice between finance and excellence?

Dan: That presumption may be flawed. Is there really a tradeoff? I wrote a profile with Harry Bloom, Strategy Manager of Day School Sustainability at PEJE, of a school with affordable tuition, $13,000, which competes with schools double the cost. The perceived value scores pretty high, and the educational offering is pretty good. The vast majority of graduates go to prestigious New York high schools. But there has to be a tradeoff: it may not be excellence, but it may be bells and whistles in the form of some of the other amenities schools can offer.

Brian: I think the tradeoff has always been there. I’m the youngest of nine who went through the Catholic day school system. Parents know they are buying the quality of the classroom, and will give up access to playing fields and other things. We can always strive for tech improvements, bringing tech into the classroom. But the excellence is always there; we don’t struggle with perceived quality. The big struggle is with Catholics in general leaving the Church. That’s why we have a broader messaging campaign: “Catholics come home.”

For the full version of this conversation, visit the AVI CHAI blog here.