Tackling Tuition with Local Day Schools

Happy students at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Gesher Jewish Day School.

By Gabe Aaronson
Special Correspondent

[This article was originally published in the August 3, 2017 issue of Kol HaBirah: Voice of the Capital, a bi-weekly print and online publication serving the Maryland, DC, and northern Virginia Jewish community. Despite being local in nature, JDS sustainability is an issue many communities grapple with. ]

Education has been a cornerstone of Jewish life for millennia, and American Jewry’s increasing focus on affordable day school tuition reflects that priority. On the one hand, there is huge emphasis on the importance of a day school education for the future of the Jewish community. School leaders stress to parents that the value of a good dual-curriculum is well worth the expense. On the other hand, many parents told Kol HaBirah that the price tag can create a financial burden that disrupts family life, impacts family-planning decisions, or makes it harder to donate to synagogues and other communal institutions.

One local parent, who is also a Jewish day school teacher, summarized this tension in a nutshell: “As a parent, tuition is too high. As a teacher, it’s not high enough.”

According to IRS filings, average tuition in the six largest Greater Washington-area Jewish schools was $21,261 in 2015. This is a daunting price tag for many parents. One father in Silver Spring, Maryland, a scientist by profession, said he is “terrified for the 18-plus years that we have in the future of paying for schooling” because it will require longer work hours, less time with the kids, and potentially no retirement.

To be sure, the sticker price for Jewish education can be deceiving. About 44 percent of Jewish students in the Greater Washington area receive scholarships, averaging $11,990. One parent at the Torah School of Greater Washington, located in Silver Spring, said that the school was very sensitive to their financial situation, charging just eight to 10 percent of their income for one child. This was even less than they told the school they could afford.

Some schools have very high rates of financial aid. Rabbi Yitzhok Merkin, headmaster at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington in Silver Spring, told Kol HaBirah that the yeshiva’s policy is to never turn away a family because they can’t afford tuition. As a result, 122 of their 175 students (including both the boys and girls divisions) received financial aid in 2015. Fundraising to pay for this generous scholarship program is a “tremendous responsibility,” said Rabbi Merkin, with 48 percent of their budget coming from donations and grants.

The Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland, also ensures that any child, regardless of the family’s means, can attend, according to Head of School Dr. Joshua Levisohn. Moreover, no one in the school’s administration knows who receives financial aid. “Berman uses a third party assessor to process all financial aid applications,” he said, with a financial aid committee composed of non-parents making the award decisions.

Nonetheless, even families with comfortable incomes can struggle with tuition. Silver Spring resident Nancy Karkowsky, now a grandmother, said that in the early 1990s her family was paying $60,000 per year in tuition for six children. Even though her late husband was an MD/PhD at the Food and Drug Administration with a salary of roughly $100,000, he had to moonlight two to three nights a week in local hospitals to afford Jewish day school. When they sought scholarships, Karkowsky said, the family’s day school was unsympathetic. “It was your choice to send your oldest to Yale” was the school’s response, she said.

When it came to big ticket expenses – a down payment for their house, for example – the Karkowsky family had to rely on Nancy’s parents and in-laws. Relief came only when the rest of her children started college at the University of Maryland and their tuition costs went down considerably.

The heads of Jewish institutions generally agree that tuition is very high, but most believe that increasing enrollment is more important than lowering tuition and that there’s a tenuous link between the two.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, for example, plays an important role in funding Jewish education by providing an annual grant to each school based on enrollment. According to Marci Harris-Blumenthal, managing director of Community & Global Impact for the Federation, the support for each of the six area day schools for the 2017-2018 school year is set at $469 per student (one to two percent of day school budgets). This amounts to $1.3 million dollars.

The Federation’s top education priority, however, is increasing enrollment in Jewish schools, not lowering tuition per se. According to Harris-Blumenthal, a few years ago a Federation task force researched models for lowering tuition and/or providing scholarships to drive enrollment growth. Based on the experiences of communities around the country, the task force found that needs-based scholarships can at best hold enrollment steady, while short-term (three to four-year) tuition breaks increase enrollment initially but have no effect after the incentive runs out.

While the Federation continues to look for ways to offset the cost of day school tuition, Harris-Blumenthal said, the Federation and the day schools are exploring ways to market the value of a Jewish day school education to parents.

It’s an approach better supported by the research, she said.

Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of school for the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS) in Rockville, agrees that the high cost of tuition is a problem for individual families. He encourages all parents to use the tuition calculator on their website to see how responsive the school is to parents’ needs. According to the calculator, a family making $125,000/year could expect to pay about $26,240 – 21 percent of their income – on tuition for two children.

However, Rabbi Malkus considers low enrollment in Jewish schools to be the problem for the Greater Washington Jewish community. “By most measures, only about 10 percent or 12 percent of Jewish children in the U.S. are enrolled in Jewish day schools, compared to countries like South Africa and Australia where 80 to 90 percent of Jewish children attend Jewish school,” he said.

Rabbi Malkus said he spends the bulk of his time convincing parents that a Jewish education is valuable. He spends the rest ensuring that his school provides a high-quality education that he is proud to offer parents.

Rabbi Malkus pointed out that the Orthodox community, where 81 percent of parents have a child enrolled in a Jewish school according to the Pew Research Center, may face different challenges. “In Orthodox schools, the question of sustainability is ‘how do we make this affordable?’” Rabbi Malkus said, “Whereas in community schools, we need to make a values case to parents.”

It seems that all of the Jewish day schools in the Greater Washington area want to expand. The Yeshiva of Greater Washington is growing enrollment by 25 percent this year, Rabbi Merkin told Kol HaBirah. In 2015, the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital received a $20 million donation to add a seventh grade in 2018 and an eighth grade in 2019.

Dan Finkel, Head of School for Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Virginia, said that they enroll over 160 students, but there are almost 1,600 children ages 0-5 signed up for PJ Library, a free Jewish book program, within a few miles of the school. If they could enroll even a fraction of these PJ Library kids, Finkel said, then Gesher could easily fill its school building to its 260 student to capacity and beyond.

Indeed, Rabbi Malkus believes that increasing enrollment can be part of the solution to the tuition problem. More students will mean more economies of scale and lower costs for everyone.

Jewish schools could certainly use more economies of scale. The average operating cost (not including scholarships) for Jewish schools the Greater Washington area was $21,573 per student in 2015 (very close, incidentally, to the average tuition price). This is significantly higher than what the public schools spent, including all construction costs, in both Maryland ($16,574 per student) and Virginia ($12,173 per student) in the same year.

It is unclear that lower costs would automatically lead to lower tuition, however. When asked by Kol HaBirah what they would do with a $50 million endowment, most school administrators said they would use the annual proceeds (about $2.5 million per year) to increase financial aid and improve the quality of instruction. Only Dr. Levisohn at the Berman said his school would use some of the funds to hold tuition steady at its current rate.

Ultimately, many parents disagree with the notion that the high cost of tuition is only a problem for individual families but not for the community as a whole. Several parents told Kol HaBirah that because schools cost so much, they must skimp on their support for other Jewish institutions such as synagogues, eruv associations, mikvahs, and more.

Then there is the disruption to family life. Nancy Karkowsky said that her adult children resent the price they paid to attend Jewish day school: maybe if they had attended public school, then their father would have been home at night instead of working at Prince George’s County Hospital. Multiple parents told Kol HaBirah that community members are choosing to have fewer children to better afford the price of Jewish day school.

The takeaway for parents is that unless something big happens, tuition will keep rising. School administrators, meanwhile, don’t necessarily see this as an unsustainable reality. “Good education is costly,” one administrator said, particularly in Jewish schools “that are providing a rich dual curriculum to [their] students.”