Meeting the Tuition Crisis: Out of the Box Thinking

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By Rabbi Eliot Feldman

Challenge Facing All Day Jewish Education

Most of the recent studies of Jewish communal life highlight the importance of all day Jewish education as an effective method for transmitting Jewish tradition, culture and texts to the next generation. For those committed to all day Jewish education this is rapidly becoming a fiscal challenge where paying full tuition for multiple children is beyond the means of most middle class families. Compounding this challenge is a desire to form schools which reflect a narrow mission and vision. This has led to the proliferation of multiple schools in close geographic proximity competing for a share of the same market. The Head of School carries the mission and vision of the school, and because of its specific Jewish focus, each operates with ‘empty seats’ which translates into deficits in operating budgets. Community members are segmented based on school alliance.

Known as ‘The Tuition Crisis’ this convergence of increased commitment to Jewish educational excellence and an inability to fashion a sustainable fiscal model has been the focus of conversation among lay and professional school officials, community leaders and philanthropists.

Current Thinking

Research indicates that there are two current mainstream approaches.

The most often considered solution is consolidation. Prima fascia it appears irresponsible to have two Jewish day schools serving the same age populations and catchment areas each with available space to increase enrollment without a commensurate increase in expenses. Logic would dictate that these schools should be combined. This is true until one realizes that while both schools are Jewish day schools, each one serves a different population, i.e., one is liberal and one is more traditional, and each needs to maintain its unique flavor and ethos. Parents have come to expect that the school reflect their own Jewish practice and belief and will only consider enrolling in such an institution.

Another approach uses the ‘big tent’ model. More commonly known as a ‘community school,’ an institution is created with a broad mission to appeal to the widest audience. While this would appear to be fiscally responsible and most inclusive, its name belies its mission. In practice these schools tend not to enroll students from orthodox families, as the pluralistic approach of these schools is antithetical to the beliefs of this segment of the community.

(There is a third approach, and this is to change the model for curriculum delivery by relying more on technology. There are a few schools who use this model. It is still too early in their development to evaluate educational success or financial viability.)

The purpose of this article is to suggest a different approach to this challenge.

Meeting Today’s Challenge

Reverse the model.

Currently the CEO is an educator with the title of Head of School. The business office reports to the Head of School and often to the Board of Directors. What would happen if a new corporate entity was created to provide funding and facility. This would be a 501(3)(c) whose CEO is a person from the business sector. Tuition, donations and endowment funds would be channeled through this entity and would be eligible for charitable receipts to the fullest extend allowed by law. The entity can be a stand-alone or an arm of an existing community organization.

This entity would operate with divisions, each representing the particular Jewish perspective of the originating educational institution. Each division would be led by a Head of School and operate with its own admissions director, admissions process, requirements for graduation and issue its own diploma. During the course of a student’s career they would register for classes to meet their division’s requirements. Where possible, homogenized classes could be formed, e.g., math, social science, technology, history, art, music, foreign language. To meet the Jewish/religious needs, classes in Jewish studies would be more focused, and students could cross register, depending on the academic requirements of their division. For example, if the divisions represented different positions on the Jewish spectrum, a student from the more liberal school might enroll in a Talmud class of the more traditional school, and a student from the more traditional school might enroll in an Ivrit class from the more liberal school.

The advantages of this approach are three fold.

  1. It maximizes financial and physical resources. It encourages an expansion of the donor base as solicitations are for the broader category of ‘Jewish Education’ rather than a sectarian institution. The sharing of resources and back office services, e.g., finance, marketing, development, maximizes the funds available for contact teaching which advances the primary educational mission of the school.
  2. It broadens the sense of community. Students and families from diverse segments will interact in ways that might not otherwise take place.
  3. It allows the community to add to its infrastructure and expand its appeal and inclusiveness. For smaller communities, the option of a more traditional and less traditional Jewish education might not otherwise be possible. When considering relocation, a family might find these expanded options more inviting and satisfying. If tuition can be below what is charged in larger communities, this can be a significant incentive for community growth.

As in all joint ventures, compromise is required. There are three main challenges, food, feel, and funding.

  1. Food. Being able to eat together is a basic element of community building. A breakfast/lunch program certified by the local Vaad HaKashruth would need to be a required part of school operations. Students could bring their own snacks, with a ‘no sharing’ policy.
  2. Feel. Each division would need to ensure that the ‘feel’ of the mission and vision of their division was maintained. On a broad level, this is best served through a school uniform. There could be three versions – boys’ shirt & pants, girls’ blouse and skirt or slacks.
  3. Finances. A finance committee with equal representation from each division would ensure that the voice of each division was properly heard and accommodated.

Creativity Needed Going Forward

The model offered here is likely best suited to small and medium-sized communities, although it might be applied successfully in larger markets.

The current economic climate is a challenging one for the Jewish community where the need for all day Jewish education has been identified as a priority for ensuring the Jewish identity and commitment of the next generation of Jews. ‘Out of the box’ thinking is required to meet this test. A coalition of community leaders, funders and forward thinking educators should begin the conversation before spiraling costs cause more families to abandon the all-day Jewish educational experience for their children.

Rabbi Eliot Feldman is a veteran of Jewish communal service as a congregational rabbi, educator and school leader. He and his wife are grateful for the tuition subsidies they received so that their four children could enroll in all day Jewish education through their high school years. His personal experience as the Head of a Jewish day school is the basis for this article.