Friday, August 27, 2010

Is the Wolf Knocking at our Door?

Are we experiencing the beginning of long predicted crash of our religious educational system? One might be tempted to view the two recent school closings in Lakewood that way. As I have said many times the system as we know it is unsustainable. Even in the wealthier communities where the high tuition is more affordable, most schools seem to operate on deficits.

That’s because we have a seemingly unsolvable dilemma – a conundrum if you will. One that has been a niggling problem for years if not decades. On the one hand we insist on giving our children the best education possible. To that extent we want the best and the brightest people teaching in our schools.

Although teaching involves a certain degree of altruistic sacrifice, no teacher is going to starve his or her family and accept poverty wages. Good people who might be inclined to teach are often sought after by industry for more lucrative positions and will either never teach or will leave Chinuch after a while to get those better jobs. Even though when they do leave Chinuch - being altruistic - they do so with a certain degree of regret.

If we want good teachers we have to pay them good wages. If we want good schools we need to have good enrichment programs - and good administrators - and good facilities.

If full tuition were paid by all parents it might cover a school’s basic expenses. But very few people pay full tuition. Most parents are on some degree scholarship allowance based on their means. Some pay very little. And in a few cases no tuition is paid. The bottom line is that a lot of money needs to be raised by a school board to cover their budgets.

Increasingly those budgets are never met. Shortfalls seem to be increasing every year as scholarships increase and donations decrease. If the deficit becomes large enough teachers don’t get paid on time. Sometimes not for months! And if deficits increase even more, schools start closing.

In communities like Lakewood where there are large families and generally lower incomes - deficits are probably huge to begin with. Perhaps teachers there are willing to sacrifice more taking lower salaries to begin with. But that does not compensate for the huge and increasing shortfalls they experience.

Tuition is based on cost per child. The way scholarships generally work is that no parent is asked to pay more than they can afford. So if one has a certain amount available for tuition that is what they pay regardless of how many children they have in the school.

If for example a tuition is $10,000 per child per year, and one has ten children – not an unusual size in Lakewood – there is no way they are going to pay 100,000 per year. Not if the entire pre-tax annual income is $40,000 or less.

Philanthropy in those schools becomes exponentially important. But in the current economic climate donations are down. And the demographic trend in places like Lakewood means enrollment is up without any increase in tuition income.

I am not happy to see my prediction of unsustainablity come true. But if the two school closing in Lakewood (as reported in Orthonomics and elsewhere) are any indication, the wolf is at the door.

I have no solution to the over-all problem. Tuition is at an all time high – as are scholarships. The parent body of the entire Orthodox world is being taxed to the hilt. Almost every parent struggles to pay their tuition obligations no matter how much money they make - unless they are among the very wealthy. Lakewood parents are not alone in that regard.

But one thing is certain. The push that the right wing Yeshiva world has towards staying in Kollel for as long as possible and downplaying, ignoring, or even ridiculing the importance of preparing for a decent living is a major contributing factor to the crisis in places like Lakewood. If there weren’t so many low income parents with such large families in Lakewood the tuition crisis might not be so bad and two schools totaling 600 students might not have had to close. I’m not saying they would have been in the black. But they would at least still exist. Those 600 children would be in the classrooms and their teachers would not be out of work.

What do we do in the short term? Like I said I have no joy in seeing 600 children without a school to go to and dozens of teachers (or more) out of work.

There has been some suggestion that wealthy parents and Baalei Battim substantially increase their donations. I agree. A little belt tightening would not hurt some of them. No one suggests - least of all me - that they should give away all their wealth or that they should not lead the kind of lifestyles they can afford. A person has a right to enjoy the fruits of their labor and their wealth.

But there comes a time when community welfare should take precedence and a few luxuries forgone. This may be one of those times. I know it’s difficult to get an increase in donations from a multi millionaire who has lost millions of dollars in the current economy. But if a fellow earns 10 million dollars a year and that is cut in half - that still leaves him with 5 million.

How much of that does he need to live on – even at a luxurious lifestyle? A million? Two million? That leaves 3 million that can be used for community purposes. I appeal to these wealthy Jews to make the sacrifice now when it is needed and give away most of that 5 million to these schools. Let them also limit donations to their own community. Anyei Ircha Kodmon.

But we cannot expect the wealthy to pay all of our bills for us. Even just our tuition bills. My suggestion is only meant as a stopgap measure. As I have said a million times - the paradigm has to change. If the right wing leadership does not see the handwriting on the wall, then the system will collapse. And it may have already started.