It’s that time of year again. In a few days the new school year will begin. Tuition and scholarship committees are in full gear right now dealing with a record number of applications.
That there is a financial crisis in American Jewish education is not news. This has almost always been the case. I recall many a strike by Rebbeim at my elementary Jewish day school because they hadn’t been paid in months. And that was in the late 50s when tuition's were actually more or less affordable (and teachers salaries were embarrassingly low)!
Fast forward to 2009. The current financial crisis is greater than ever. Tuitions are at record levels and teachers still do not make enough – although their situation has vastly improved since the 50s - even since the 70s. Although tuitions are at record high levels so too are the deficits of nearly all the religious educational institutions.
The financial structure of most religious schools is as follows.
Tuitions generally represent the cost of education per child. Simply stated - the entire budget of the school is divided by the number of students enrolled and that should more or less equal tuition – plus a slight excess to cover scholarship children.
Most parents I know cannot possibly afford full tuitions arrived at by this formula. If a tuition is $12,000 per child (a low figure for most Yeshivos and day schools if I understand correctly) then a family of four children pays $48,000 per year; a family of five children - $60,000. So it is quite understandable that the typical parent rarely pays full tuition. Deficits run up pretty quickly if the student body is large enough.
In the past fund raisers like banquets and concerts helped make up the difference. Some cities like Chicago have generous allocations from their Jewish Federations as well. And there are always the ‘sugar daddies’ – those generous Jewish philanthropists who are always turned to in order to save an institution form going under. But all that is not enough. Religious schools are not solvent. Most of them are in debt and getting deeper into it.
And the current economic situation is accelerating that. Some parents have lost their jobs. Some cases two income families have become one income families. Some philanthropists’ finances have actually crashed and burned and others have had their incomes cut severely and their donations reflect that. School budgets have increased - but so have scholarships.
Looking at these factors it is not all that difficult to understand the crisis that we are in.
As a result the unthinkable – at least for a religious Jew - has happened. Religious parents are starting to seriously consider public schools as an option. It is unthinkable because the history of publicly educated children in the past is not a good one. The vast majority of students who attended public school in the past are today not religious at all. Many of their children are intermarrying. While there are other factors that contributed to this – the lack of a good Jewish education is not the least of them.
The influences in today’s public schools are far worse than ever. Being religious is no longer the only concern. The deeper you go - the worse it gets. Just look at moral standards of any college campus. Not to mention the rather casual attitude on these campuses about illegal drug use.
But I digress. The point here is losing Jewish children from Judaism. That - for the first time in decades – is a real concern.
This concern was a while back. I recall a story published about a religious parent deciding to pull his kids form a day school and send them to public school. It was an anomaly then - but it seems to be taking hold somewhat now - as the Jewish Star recently reported. Parents struggling severely with their finances to the point of dire need are pulling their kids.
Let us look at the budget side. Why have they increased so drastically? There are many reasons - most of them good ones.
Teachers in the past were paid near poverty level wages. This meant that very few qualified people were getting into hat field. Of the few who did get into Jewish education and were good at it - demand for their services was high. Competition for them between schools ended up raising their salaries.
General rule: If you want good teachers you are going to have to pay them a living wage. Education will not be an attraction for them otherwise.
Benefits packages have increased too. Health insurance premiums have gone up dramatically and that has increased the budgets without teachers even feeling any benefit. They still get the same coverage. Only it costs the school more.
Administrative salaries are much higher now than in the past. Good principals are hard to find and if you want good people in education running your child’s school your are going to have pay for them. Good principals may be recruited by business and industry - tempted away from education with tantalizingly high salaries being dangled in front of them for their talents. Dedicated as most are - they will stay in education even though it usually means less money. But they need to be offered a competitive wage. They will not work for peanuts!
The there are special educations programs offered dealing with LD children or gifted children. There are teacher’s aides, small class sizes, good secular teachers… on sight psychologists, physical education teachers, music teachers, theater productions ( e.g. Erev Shira), expansion costs …it all adds up to something the community cannot afford. But where do you cut?
There is an idea floating around about a no frills day school. If I recall correctly it was an initiative proposed by a Rabbinical Council of America committee who had worked on it. It would eliminate some of the expenses by increasing class size, doing away with enrichment programs and other cost cutting measures. But I doubt that a school budget of even a no frills day school will be reduced by all that much. The lion’s share of any budget is teachers’ salaries. Teachers and principals still need to make a decent living. The era of poverty wages for educators is over. Thank goodness.
That is the ‘Reader’s Digest’ version of why the budgets have increased. And why the deficits have too. And it is in part why the American Jewish community is in biggest educational crisis since World War II.
As I said I have no real solutions. We can neither afford to lose students to public schools nor good teachers and administrators to the business world.
But if things keep going the way they are... we may lose significant numbers of both.