Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The End of Jewish Education as We Know It?

The current economy is taking its toll on religious day school parents. The situation is so dire that the unthinkable has happened. Thoughts of public school are now entering the minds of serious and committed Orthodox Jews.

Sending a child to public school is a tragic solution to a real problem. While there are some notable exceptions it is a spiritual death warrant in most cases. The influences of the overall public school experience will almost certainly lay to waste even the best religious parenting. Trust me. I know. I was there.

Although I do not think we are there yet public school is becoming a distinct possibility - as an article in the New York Times shows. Here is an excerpt:

Jason Ross, a modern Orthodox Jew from Cedarhurst, N.Y., has sent his two children to a school where they learn secular and religious subjects, follow a religious calendar and keep kosher. But Mr. Ross, a pharmaceutical salesman, was laid off earlier this month. He is now thinking about the unthinkable: public school.

“I graduated from a yeshiva,” he said. “So did my wife. But it would be $28,000 for two kids this year.” His voice trailed off. “Sometimes I joke with the kids: ‘The bus will come a little later in the morning, you’ll be home by two, and you won’t have as much homework. It will be good!’ ”

One may ask whether religious day schools consider the financially overburdened parent in the current economic climate. Are they willing to extend additional financial help during these times?
The answer yes, of course they are. But as simple as that answer sounds it is not simple to execute. And that’s the conundrum. There is currently no good solution to the problem of high quality religious education which comes at a price that is becoming increasingly impossible to meet. And I don’t see things getting any better.

Jewish education as we know it is an existential crisis right now. We need good teachers for our children. Good teachers cost money - more than we as religious community can afford. Meanwhile parents have always been squeezed for the maximum they can afford which is usually far less than actual tuition.

Here is how scholarships are typically determined. The following is a gross oversimplification and is meant only to describe the philosophy behind granting scholarship assistance.

Tuition and scholarship committees are formed by the board of directors of a school. These committees are mandated to see that parents who can afford it pay their fair share to the school in the form of tuition. Tuition basically reflects the cost per child to the school. The lion’s share of the school budget goes to pay the salaries of the administration and faculty.

Most parents cannot afford full tuition - especially if they have more than one child in the school. All parents are given the opportunity to apply for scholarship assistance. .

Incomes are analyzed. Deductions for reasonable living expenses - or for special circumstances such as illness or loss of job (as in the above case) are allowed. The rest of one’s income - if there is any 'rest' - is considered money available for tuition. If those funds are less than full tuition all of that money is expected to be paid to the school. The balance of those tuition fees are turned into scholarships and not charged to the parent.

That is an entirely justifiable position for a school board to take if one wants quality educators for their children.

This process has now been complicated by the economic turn down. More parents than ever are applying for larger scholarships than ever. And most teachers still don't make enough – certainly not what they are worth. Making up those tuition scholarships with fundraisers like annual banquets rarely covers the tuition shortfall. And now they are less likely than ever to do so.

I have no real solution. And though there have been some innovative ways to raise funds for education here in Chicago in recent years - budgets deficits are nonetheless still increasing in most cases.

I shudder to think what the future holds if economic conditions remain the same or - as seems likely - get even worse.

Ezzie of SerandEz has created a survey that should be of interest to all those concerned with this issue. It is available here.