Monday, January 08, 2018


State Senator Dan Biss visits Arie Crown Hebrew day School (Agudah wesbite)
Being an Orthodox Jew in America is privilege. But if you have children it is also very expensive. 

While being observant requires all kinds of additional expenses, nothing matches the expense of educating a child. A good education requires good teachers. If one cares about both religious and secular studies, then that requirement is doubly true. Good teachers don’t come cheap. If you want the best for your children, you are going to have to pay good teachers what they are worth. Or at least enough to incentivize them not to leave the field of education for lack of making enough money to support their families. Then there are administrative costs, building costs, supplies and maintenance. 

Which all adds up to what we ‘lovingly’ call the tuition crisis. It is a crises because once you add up all the above costs and divide it by the number of children in the school… and add in financial assistance to parents that need it, you are in the realm of stratospheric expenses of educating your children. Even if you have only one child let alone the average for religious families which is about 4 or 5 children per family if I am not mistaken.

If for example tuition per child in a religious school is $10,000 (a low ball estimate  in 2018- I’m sure) then you will be paying $50,000 in tuition per year. How many people can afford to pay even that low ball estimate amount in post tax dollars for their children’s education?

This is nothing new and has been discussed here many times. If you are a parent of children attending a parochial school you already know this. You don’t need me to tell it to you. 

The truth is that unless they are very wealthy, most parents don’t pay full tuition. They are given financial assistance based on their financial situation. The shortfall is made up by a variety of fundraising activities. That, however, does not make up for the shortfall in most cases. Which means that parents are squeezed to the max for every tuition dollar they can spare. 

Which also means that the discretionary spending that public school parents can afford are not as available to most parents of parochial school children.The new car, remodeling the home, the nice vacation, Pesach in Croatia… all of this and more are often just a pipe dream to them.

Reducing expenditures in the school is not a realistic option for relief. It is a myth that parochial schools waste a lot of money. At least not to the extent that it would have much of an impact on the financial burden to parents.

As noted a lot of this has been discussed here many times in many different ways. Various ideas have been suggested as to how to alleviate this massive burden on religious families while at the same time not compromising the excellence those schools strive for.

One of the more popular solutions is a government voucher program of some kind that would at least defray the cost of the secular side of a parochial school’s curriculum. The principle behind this is school choice. Instead of sending a child to a local public school funded by the government - parents would receive vouchers that can only be used to pay for a a child’s education. A parent can then send their child to the school of their choice and ‘pay’ the school those vouchers. Which I assume the schools would redeem for cash. The choice of schools would not be limited to only public schools. It would include private secular schools and parochial schools. As long as the money is not used for religious education there would be a violation  of the 1st amendment’s separation clause.

Teachers unions are vehemently opposed to it. They claim that it does violate the separation clause. Additionally they say it would divert needed public school funds to private school parents who don’t need them. Leaving less money for parents in low income neighborhoods that really do.

I am not here to argue the constitutionality of vouchers. Other that the fact that in my opinion, vouchers used for a secular studies curriculum does not violate it. I am here to tell you that vouchers work. That even ( perhaps especially) parents in low income neighborhoods that care about their chidlren’s education are in favor of vouchers. Why wouldn’t a low income parent want to be able to choose the school their children attend, instead of being forced to send them to a substandard school in their neighborhood?!

Vouchers are the only realistic solution to the tuition crisis. How do I know? Because vouchers exist in Indiana. Parochial school parents in that state can breathe. Their secular studies programs are somewhat subsidized – provided they meet state educational standards. Which is relatively easy for Orthodox Jewish parochial schools to meet. What about the cost to the state of vouchers? To the best of my knowledge Indiana is one of the few states that is not in the red. They have a balanced budget.

I bring all of this up in light of yesterday’s launch of Illinois’ version of vouchers. Its called the Invest in Kids ActAlthough it is a bit complicated and not the same as Indiana’s system, it will surely help ease the burden on tuition paying parents in Illinois – as well as help the reduce the budget shortfall’s of their schools. An  article in Matzav explains how it will work. The short version (if I understand it correctly) is that the State of Illinois has set up program that will allow state taxpayers to donate to scholarship granting organizations at a 75% tax write off of state income taxes. 

In the first day, $36 million of the $100 million cap on this fund was collected by the state from taxpayer/donors. This money will be used for scholarships to low and middle income parents that apply and qualify for them.

The Illinois legislature is not known for getting things done. It is a highly partisan institution that has a conservative Republican governor (Bruce Rauner) and a Democratic legislature run by a hard core liberal Democrat (Speaker, Mike Madigan). They never agree on anything. Illinois didn’t even have a budget for the first 3 years of the governor’s tenure because of the intransigence of both sides on issues of contention. The state’s deficit is one the largest in the country.

It is therefore a near miracle that this legislation was passed. Both sides of a very contentious political aisle supported it.

This is one of those areas that Agudath Israel shines. Their representative here, Rabbi Shlomo Soroka worked with state officials in both parties to get it done. Both Rabbi Soroka and the Agudah deserve the gratitude of all us in Illinois that have children or grandchildren in parochial schools.

Unfortunately the largest segment of parochial school parents resides on the East Coast. Mostly in New York. The tuitions there are probably a lot higher than they are in Chicago. I do not believe there is anything like vouchers on the horizon there.

My advice to parents there is to keep urging their government officials to follow the lead of Indiana -  and now Illinois. After all New York is a state that has many observant Jews that send their children to parochial schools.  They vote. And New York have many advocacy groups like the Agudah and the OU that have some political clout.That should mean something. Shouldn’t it?