Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Crisis in Jewish Education: Show Me the Money

Chicago has many wonderful educational institutions. Just about the entire spectrum of Yiddishkeit is represented by these many schools, whether high schools or elementary schools or Yeshivos, we have a school to fit any Hashkafa. There are, of course, many people who would love to change a few things about a particular school here or there, but for the most part we are diverse and able to serve Jewish Chicago’s educational needs. (There’s always room for improvement.) But as is the case in many cities there is one major problem and it is at crisis proportion. That problem is funding. For various legitimate and not so legitimate reasons, these schools are dangerously under funded. Schools are operating with budgets that are increasing annually and revenue that has not kept pace, and indeed, may even be decreasing per capita (i.e. student) in some cases.

I serve on the scholarship and tuition committee on one of these schools. It has been becoming increasingly clear that the parent body is being pushed to the limits of their abilities. Tuitions in some schools are as high as $10,000 per student (or perhaps even higher) and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that if you have a typical Jewish family of 4 or 5 kids that full tuitions far exceed a typical family’s ability to afford it. Scholarships are liberally given but still... every possible nickel is squeezed out of a typical parent’s pocketbook. Fundraising, such as banquets, concerts, or raffles, are maxed out and revenue from those events, even though they may raise in excess of a half million dollars per year in some schools, fall far short of an ever increasing budget.

The outlook for the future looks bleak as things seem to only be getting worse. Budgets are going to continue to go up. But community wealth in the aggregate seems to be stagnant and in some cases becoming less available.

What to do!

The answer is, I just don’t know. I don’t think anyone has a solution. It seems that we are at an impasse. On the one hand Mechnchim are being paid much better than they ever have been. In the past one could scarcely support oneself and one’s family on a Mechnech's salary. But teachers who are now paid the highest salaries in history (on the average) hardly qualify as decent wages for those entrusted with the education of our children. They deserve a lot more than they get. On the other hand there is really not enough money to pay for the salaries they get now! Most schools run on deficits. This in spite of maxing out every resource in fundraising and squeezing every parent for every dollar they can spare.

This is not the first time anyone has written about it and it won’t be the last. But one thing I know for sure is it cannot continue this way. Something is going to have to give.

Here are some of my thoughts.

I remember reading about a group of middle class parents in the New York area that were going to try a radical approach to solve the problem. If I recall correctly they decided to send their children to public school for one part of the day and give them private Limudei Kodesh lessons the other part of the day. It first glance I thought this to be a prescription for disaster. Wasn’t this what the situation was in the pre- day school era? And didn’t this situation have the disastrous results of losing almost every child to assimilation? This “afternoon school” system was a complete failure. Yet the current attempt by these NY parents is precisely a duplication of those circumstances. Or is it? I’m not so sure. Afternoon school consisted of a full day in public school and then when all their classmates were done with school for the day these poor Jewish kids had to start all over again in a Jewish school. Who wouldn’t hate such a schedule?

I do not think this new attempt duplicates the old and hated (by students) afternoon school system. The schedule would instead mimic the typical day school setting of half day Limudei Kodesh and half day Limudei Chol... only the Chol would be done in a public school setting. I don’t know that this will work for sure. There are serious problems that would have to be dealt with effectively and I’m not even sure it is possible. Just to pose one obvious example, the secular and moral climate that these children would be exposed to in a public school at very tender ages might not be the best way for them to get their secular Chinuch. And of course there are other problems as well such as control of the curriculum some of which might be objectionable to a Torah Hashkafa. And there is the simple technical problem of participating in public school part time and getting the full benefit of it. There are probably a lot more problems that I can’t even think of.

But I think the new program has some merit and should be seriously looked into. These problems although huge may be solvable.

Another possibility would be to hire Rabbeim who can teach Limudei Chol as well. In my view part of the budgetary problems is hiring good teachers at a living wage as a means of attracting them into Chinuch. But typically they only teach a little more than a half a day. This means that for the hours they teach they are paid quite well. I do not mean to imply that they don’t work outside of the classroom preparing etc. But this is true of every teacher including those who work full days. A way to reduce the budget would be to hire these Rabbeim to teach Limudei Chol too and pay them more than the get for a half day but less than hiring a separate secular studies teacher for the afternoon. It would also save benefits package costs which would theoretically be cut in half. And an even greater benefit would be having the Rebbe in place all day as a Mashpia and as a role model instead of secular teachers who are either not Jewish or not Frum.

This solution would entail an upheaval in the Yeshiva world where most Mechnchim are drawn from since they do not get the education required to be accredited secular studies teachers but with the current situation being what it is, an upheaval is required. It behooves our Rabbinic leadership to start encouraging it’s Bnei Torah to go to college and get credentialed as secular studies teachers if they want to go into Chinuch.

Another option might be to scatter the Limudei Kodesh classes throughout the day so as to enable Rabbeim to teach all day.

These are some suggestions I have thought about over the years and all of them should be examined seriously by those in charge of educational system of Orthodox Jewry. Otherwise something is going to give and it won’t be pretty.