Rabbi Saul Zucker of the Orthodox Union explains that "the average price of Jewish day school tuition for grades K-12 is $15,000 per year (as compared to the average Catholic school tuition of $3,383, according to NCEA). For four children that would mean $60,000 per year post taxes, which indicates that one would have to earn approximately $200,000 per year (the top 3 percent of earners in this country) just to support their children's education."
I don’t know how many of my readers that have children in the day schools make $200,000. But my guess is that it more or less reflects the national average of about 3%. This is a crisis that is not going away and is only going to get worse if something isn’t done about it.
I have in the past offered some suggestions that if implemented would go a long way to solving this crisis. I have thought about it some more and may have something to add. But first let us examine why the costs are so high; and if there is anything we can do to reduce those costs.
A good Jewish education first and foremost requires good teachers in religious studies. There was a time where a day school teacher was not a profession that good and talented people wanted to pursue. Because the pay that was offered at that time was pretty much starvation wages. Rebbeim could seek additional employment as afternoon Hebrew school teachers and in summer jobs. Secular subjects were taught by public school teachers looking to supplement their own low public school pay.
That was basically it back then. Tuition was relatively low. And scholarships were more freely given. I recall a lot of strikes by rebbeim in my day school when I was there back in the 50s. Rebbeim sometimes didn’t get paid their very meager salaries for months!
That scenario is now gone. We can no longer expect truly talented and gifted people to seek careers as rebbeim for starvation wages. If we want to attract good teachers we are going to have to pay them. Good teachers are now making a living wage. That has obviously bumped up the cost of educating our children considerably.
Needless to say, that is why tuition is sky high. It is not because of waste, an accusation often hurled at schools by a few parents unhappy with their high tuition costs. Although there may be some, it is probably not enough to significantly reduce the cost per child.
So what is a typical day school parent of 4 children supposed to do? $60,000 for tuition (based on the above numbers) is more than many people make! Obviously there is financial assistance. But that doesn’t address anywhere near the scope of the problem. And this doesn’t even factor in post high school expenses. Like the gap year in Israel. Financial assistance is limited but fair in most cases.
All of this means that the single biggest portion of a family budget is probably the money paid to educate their children. So while parents are breaking their back to meet their children’s educational expenses, the school does not get anywhere near enough money to meet their own budget. How does a school make up the money they need to meet it?
In Chicago, the Jewish Federation allocates a substantial amount of money to all of the religious schools. The rest is raised in a variety of ways. Which include banquets, concerts and raffles. But even with all that, most schools run deficits. Big ones in some cases.This seems like an insurmountable problem as costs increase yearly. But here are some suggestions, some of which I have made in the past.
The multi millionaires in our communities that are so generous with their philanthropy - should be even more generous. Let them take the ‘pledge’. This is an idea Bill Gates and Warren Buffet had - inviting all fellow billionaires to give away half of their wealth to charity while they are still alive.
It might be that Orthodox Jewish philanthropists already do that. But I would make one additional stipulation. That they direct those dollars to schools in their cities until their budgets are met.
Another idea is what we have here in Chicago, the Kehilla Fund. This is a project where every Jewish member of the community pledges a fixed monthly sum to a fund that is distributed regularly to the schools. Usually automatically charged to a credit card. It can be as low as $5 or as high as anyone chooses. That has generated significant funds that would otherwise never have happened.
One more idea would be to go back to basics and reduce the number of - or even eliminate - the enrichment programs. Nobody wants to do that. But it’s better than not having a school at all if it goes bankrupt
I would suggest yet another idea. It would be a painless way to reduce costs and increase the value of the education in both religious and secular studies. A talented teacher is a talented teacher. I would suggest that all religious studies teachers become certified in the full variety of secular studies offered at a given school so that they can teach an entire day.
They would get paid more for their additional time, but the overall cost would be less than hiring an entirely separate faculty. For example the benefits package alone would be reduced by approximately one half. The added benefit is that the influence of the ‘rebbe’ and ‘morah’ would be there all day, instead of just the morning.
These are some of the ideas that come to mind. However, even if they are all implemented - they may not solve the problem. But I think they will help.