Thursday, August 27, 2009

Some Ideas for Funding Jewish Education

There is a lot of wisdom out there.

In a recent post I wrote about the overwhelming expense of Jewish education and the underwhelming resources available to pay for it. That post drew a lot of responses. 89 comments have passed moderation thus far. Many of them contained various suggestions - both good and bad - on how to improve things.

I thought it might be useful to review some of them and to include some of my own ideas.

First I should define the type of school that I think is indispensible for a successful Jewish education. I am not necessarily suggesting an ideal school. Nor am I promoting a specific Hashkafa. I am only suggesting that it is at a minimum - what is needed.

I also am limiting this to elementary schools and high schools. Post high school is a stand-alone subject that deserves its own treatment.

Here is the model. A school should have both a good religious and secular studies program. It should have the religious studies in the morning and secular studies in the afternoon. Both the religious and secular studies faculty should be well trained and paid in accordance with their talents, skills, and level of education.

There ought to be one principal and two vice principals –one for religious studies and one for secular studies. The Religious curriculum should be geared toward advanced Yeshiva learning and the secular studies should be an academic one. In high school there should be a college preparatory type curriculum. The building facilities need not be lavish but do need to be in good repair, clean, and user friendly.

That is the basic outline that in my view would produce a well rounded, educated, and productive Jew.

Obviously a good faculty and administration will necessitate teachers being well paid. You will not get good people to work in a school for peanuts no matter how dedicated they are. Nobody wants to struggle just to pay for their food bills. Nor should they have to. Good teachers deserve to be paid well so they can live like the rest of us. There is also a competitive market out there requiring every school to compete for its teaching talent. Housing for the school is not free either.

How to pay for it

A huge portion of course comes from tuition paying parents. But as I said - that can only pay for a part of it. Almost all parents are on at least a partial scholarship. And the current economy has caused an increase in that.

Then there are the general Jewish community dollars that religious schools receive via Jewish federations. Some cities do better than others. But none get full funding for the budget gap. It has been suggested that federations should be scrutinized to explore ways to better prioritize their financial allocations.

I suppose from an Orthodox perspective - that’s right. But it is not a realistic option. Most federation members are not Orthodox and do not have that perspective. Trying to convince them otherwise would be an exercise in futility and would be counterproductive. Factoring in the fact that federations are not orthodox - they are very generous to religious education. At least here in Chicago. I would not want to jeopardize that.

That leaves fundraising events to fill the gap. But that too is not enough as the increasing budget deficits of day schools and Yeshivos show. Due to the state of the economy philanthropy dollars are decreasing too. In that regard it is usually worthwhile hiring a good executive director who can raise more than his salary. He would also add tremendously to all fundraising events by organizing them to run smoothly.

There is one idea that is being tried here in Chicago that adds annual revenue to all the religious schools. It’s called The Chicago Kehilla Jewish Education Fund. Jews are asked to pledge a monthly amount that is distributed annually to all the schools. Donations can vary anywhere from 10 dollars per month - and up. All donor amounts are automatically deducted from checking accounts. Most people will not feel a ten dollar monthly deduction. Those who are more affluent they will not feel their higher monthly deductions. There are currently over a thousand members distributing about $600,000 per year to the schools here. And the list keeps growing.

Another thing would be to reduce costs. But how does one do that without reducing the quality of education?

I have long proposed that religious studies teachers be trained to teach secular studies. That would not only reduce costs but it would increase the quality of the education. Doing this one thing would have multiple benefits not the least of which is financial.

Schools could reduce the overall expense of teachers’ salary packages. Instead of having two teachers with two expensive benefits/health care packages we would have one teacher with one health care package. Addionally it is always cheaper to have one salary than two.

What I am saying is that a religious teacher who teaches secular subjects in the afternoon would not necessarily need to be paid the additional full salary of an afternoon secular teacher. He or she would get a sizable increase but less than a separate teacher would.

This is fair because it does not involve a separate commitment from someone outside the school, nor is transportation an issue. They are already there. Religious school teachers are already making relatively decent salaries and health packages. And if they have children in the schools that usually includes hefty tuition discounts for their children.

In my view afternoon secular teaching duties should not require the salary demands a teacher from the outside would make. That’s where dedication to the ideal comes in. The resulting salary increases and tuition reductions would provide a very decent middle class lifestyle and it would significantly lower costs for the school.

Not only would you decrease the size of the budget – but you would have religious teachers there for the entire school day. They would not only be role models in the mornings, they would be role models in the afternoon. What better role model could there be than a Rebbe or Morah who teaches Gemarah or Navi in the morning and math, science, or English in the afternoon.

Another good idea in my view is increasing the class sizes. I’m not sure what they typically are now but I’m sure they can be increased slightly without sacrificing the quality of the education. If even one teacher’s salary package can be eliminated that would help.

What would not work in my view is using the public school system. The idea would be to have an afternoon school system for religious studies. While saving money it is a very risky move. I realize it’s possible but it has not worked well in the past. Even if we were to try eliminating the deficiencies of the past or improving the quality of education in religious afternoon schools, I don’t think the odds are very good for a successful Jewish education. No child is happy to see their public school classmates go home and have fun while they are forced to go to another school in the afternoon. I think most kids will end up building resentment toward religion.

Nor is home schooling such a hot idea in my view. True that it has been successful in a few cases but it requires a lot of time and dedication on the part of parents who are generally ill-equipped to do it. And the very important –in my view – social component is missing. Interacting with peers during a school day is an important part of a child’s education in my view.

Going back to the era of the 1950s is not a good idea either. The idea that teachers do not go into education for the money but for the ideal sound goods, but starvation wages will chase even the most dedicated teachers away.

These are but a few ideas that I have either thought about or have gleaned for the collective wisdom of the readership here. There is more but I do not want to make this post too long and cumbersome to read. I do however want to thank all of those who made positive contributions to this very difficult issue.