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.