Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Tuition Crisis

The tuition crisis just won’t go away. As we embark on the new school year parents once again face the daunting challenge of paying tuition bills that they can ill afford. And yet what choice do they have? The only reason Orthodoxy thrives in America today is because of Jewish education. Is there any question about the necessity of it? There is little chance that a child will grow up to be an observant adult without it.

It wasn’t always like this. When my own children were in school - tuition was a burden to Orthodox parents, but it was do-able. A typical middle income wage earner could afford to send his children to a religious day school and pay full – or close to full tuition. I did it as did most of my friends. And it did not impinge on our lifestyles to do it. We took vacations, bought the occasional new or late model used car and did all the other things that the average middle income earner did. And our children did quite well – receiving an excellent Jewish and secular education. This was during the seventies and eighties.

Today even a family earning an upper middle class income has difficulty paying their tuition bills. As OU president Dr. Simcha Katz said in a JTA op-ed:

Consider a family with four children earning $200,000 a year. Only 3.5 percent of Americans earn more, yet such families are having difficulty paying tuition bills that typically exceed their mortgage obligations.

Just to cite one example - even before any tacked on fees - SAR (Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy) charges 12,800 per child (according to their website). A typical family of 4 children can cost parents almost $60,000 after all the fees are included. The bottom line is that tuition increases have outpaced increases in our income. This is in spite of the fact that our wealth as a community has increased dramatically in the last decade or two.

If the trend continues Jewish education will be unsustainable. How did this happen and what can be done about it?

Let’s do a little back-peddling. Tuition was affordable back when my children were in school because administrative and teachers salaries were much lower. One might even call them starvation wages. But dedicated teachers still opted for careers in Chinuch. None of them could however survive without a second job – usually teaching in a Shul affiliated afternoon Talmud Torah that served Jewish public school children. Many of these teachers also worked summer jobs. And their wives worked too. Somehow they managed to eke out a living this way.

But that system was also unsustainable. That kind of teacher altruism is not only hard to find, but it is unfair to ask it of them. Besides - there was no way a school would attract good teachers and administrators into a system with such low payscales. In order to attract the kind of teachers we all want for our children school boards started offering much larger salaries. That attracted good teachers. But the budgets of the past were woefully inadequate to pay for it. So tuition went up dramatically. And so did fundraising. Fortunately as the Orthodox community got wealthier, fundraising got more successful. But the obvious happened. Scholarship grants increased right along with tuition increases. Budgets seemed to increase exponentially each year.

The biggest reason for those increases is teacher and administrative salaries. But it was also due to items added to enhance the school’s curriculum and enrich the students educationally. New programs and people to run them added to the payroll. We now have a system that is enviable but that is becoming increasingly difficult to pay for. While most parents are on varying degrees of a scholarship they are increasing being asked to pay larger portions of their tuition bill to help meet those huge budgets. They are being squeezed for every nickel and dime. Not because the school wants to. But because they have to. And the downturn in the economy is not helping. As the budgets continue to increase - there are more scholarships being given out than ever.

The educational system as we now know it is at the precipice of a financial melt-down. On the one hand no one wants to give up all the good things the schools now do for our children. Not the programs and not the teachers. On the other hand the tuition paying parents do not in the aggregate have enough money to pay for it.

That leaves fundraising.

One of the ways in which funds can be obtained is through the greater Jewish community via local Jewish federations. This is an imperative. Jewish leaders of all denominations must be impressed upon to see the importance of Jewish education to Jewish survival. And they must sell this idea to their constituent donors.

I am happy to report that Chicago’s Jewish Federation is the largest donor per capita to Jewish education. More than any other Jewish federation in any other American city. New York and other cities ought to look to Chicago and re-prioritize where their allocations go. But even Chicago’s Jewish Federation could use some tweaking despite their generosity. For example – as much as I support allocating funds to the Jewish Centers - I think it’s time to re-evaluate which is the greater need. Is it the community center or Jewish education? In my view there should be an increase in the allocations to the religious schools at the expense of the Jewish centers if necessary.

Chicago also has something unique called the Kehilla fund. Hundreds of families have pledged an automatic monthly donation (deducted electronically) from $10 and up to this fund which is distributed per capita to the all the religious schools.

There is one area that is in my view has gone awry. I have always said that combined with a fair tuition and scholarship arrangement for the parent body - there is enough wealth in the greater Jewish community in a city like Chicago to pay for the Jewish education of every single child.

And yet if you talk to the executive directors of virtually every religious day school they will tell you that their fundraising activities are maxed out. They are getting maximum dollars from their philanthropic donors. The wealthy Orthodox Jews claim to be tapped out and giving as much as they can. And they do give a lot of money. There is no doubt about it. But it is not all given to the in-town schools. It is often given to the big out-of-town Yeshivos like Lakewood. Of course Lakewood needs the money too. But who should get priority here? Lakewood Avreichim or the children of your own city?

For me - it is a travesty that there are schools providing top educations to our children that are struggling to survive while dollars pour out of town into the major Yeshivos. I know it’s a lot to ask a Yeshiva like Lakewood to turn down a donation when offered, but it would be nice to see them ask a donor if their own city’s schools were first taken care of before taking the money?

I also know it’s nice to be honored by Lakewood for giving them a million dollars. But think how that same million dollars would benefit the people of your own city. It ought to go the the day schools and high schools. Again - it’s about priorities. Is it more important to sustain a Yeshiva of over 6000 (and growing) post high schools students to learn full time over assuring the viability of the schools that educate our children through high school?

And then there is the relatively new phenomenon of the wealthy supporting their own children in Kollel in the lifestyle their children were used to. That leaves a lot less money for the schools. I know of at least one case in one city where an entire Kollel was created and mostly funded by a wealthy philanthropist so that his son could be a Rosh Kollel. It’s very nice for his son – who is a huge Talmid Chacham. But how did that effect this man’s donations to the city’s other institutions? Have they decreased because of it?

Like I said the money is there. It’s only a question of re-prioritizing where it goes. The problem is getting these philanthropists to do it. This is where the Agudah Moetzes could really do some good. They could simply come out with a ban on giving money to out of town institutions unless and until their own in-town institutions are solvent. That is a ban I would support.