Wednesday, July 07, 2021

The Education Conundrum – Quality Versus Money

Lonely at the Top - Inset: Alexandra Fleksher (Mishpacha Magazine )
One of the more intelligent writers in the Orthodox world today is Alexandra Fleksher. And she has once again written a thoughtful article in her monthly Mishpacha Magazine column. This one on Jewish education - a subject that concerns me deeply. (Kiruv is also part of her discussion. But for purposes of this post, I will limit it to education.) 

In this case the focus is not on what is or isn’t taught - which is one of my primary concerns. It is on another equally concerning problem - the quality and quantity of good Limudei Kodesh (religious studies) teachers. There are not nearly enough of them. Why that is the case is the age old problem that has afflicted Jewish education since its earliest days in America – money. 

Back when my own children were entering the ‘system’, teachers were paid such meager salaries, that they could not support their families without an after school second job and additional summer work. I recall one truly great teacher who painted houses in the summer just to make ends meet. This was in the 70s. (Not really all that long ago - if you’re my age.) 

Teachers in those days came in two forms:

The truly idealistic ones who had a calling and were willing to make the kind of sacrifices I just mentioned. They would drive cars that were half rusted through, and rented apartments in multi unit buildings rather than own their own homes which they could not afford. 

The other form of teacher were the incompetent ones who couldn’t get a job anywhere else and resorted to teaching. Schools were desperate for staffing in a post Holocaust America where student populations were exploding and took anyone they could get and then did the best they could with what they had. 

I had become active in fundraising for my children’s elementary school back then and soon learned that the problem of getting good teachers for our children was not going away. No one on the board of directors wanted to perpetuate mediocrity. We realized that if we were going to be able to attract good teachers to an out-of-town school (Chicago), we would have to pay for them. Meager salaries were clearly not going to attract anyone. 

The kind of increases we found necessary turned out to be in multiples of what teachers were getting paid at the time. So we bit the bullet and offered such salaries. With mostly good results. The problem was in how to get the money to pay for them. That is still the problem. And as Alexandra notes that problem has only been increasing: 

Yes, we have a crisis on our hands… Administrators around the country speak about the challenge of finding quality candidates to fill limudei kodesh positions… (W)hat about the idealism and sense of achrayus for the klal that might motivate someone to go into kiruv or chinuch? …No doubt, the financial demands of the frum lifestyle are great, and seem to be getting greater as the years go by, which is another factor likely motivating earners to pursue more lucrative professions. 

The same is true about women who teach Limudei Kodesh to girls. Teaching jobs do not pay enough to provide for their families in their relatively new role as bread winners. Especially now-a-days when the standard of living for a  religious family is constantly increasing. 

…calls for sacrifice fall on deaf ears. They often hear the message pushed later in seminary, particularly as it applies to supporting their future husbands in kollel, but when it comes time for shidduchim, sacrificing for Torah means supporting a learning husband with a good salary, not a teacher’s salary. Sadly trending these days is that teaching doesn’t look good on a shidduch résumé. Young women deciding not to go into teaching is an unintended yet dire corollary of the push for kollel. 

Unintended consequences indeed! 

The primary source  for money to pay for good teachers is tuition. Back in the ‘good old days’ when teachers weren’t paid enough money to live on, tuitions were pretty low. School administrators wanted to keep them low in order to attract parents that were sitting on the fence about educating their child Jewishly. 

But low tuition was soon to became no longer an option. New salaries required a hefty boost in tuition. that increase did not cover the increased costs. As time went on  the gap grew wider. That’s because the number and amount of scholarships have increased. The increases keep on coming and additional parents are ‘priced out of the market’ every year. Few can afford to pay those high tuitions without scholarships. As tuition increases so do scholrships. 

That is the conundrum. More money is needed to pay for good teachers and it just isn’t there. The typical parent with several children in the school has maxed out what he can afford to pay the school long before the yearly tuition increases. As Alexandra notes, this is now more true than ever! We need to attract good teachers and we are going to have to pay for them – with money we don’t have! 

What about school fundraising such as concerts and banquets? That is a given. But it is often still not enough as educational costs increase and outpace fundraising. 

I wish had the solution. I wish it was as easy as just saying we need good teachers and were going to have to pay for them. A noble idea. But how are we going to do that? 

I wish I had the answer to that question. I don’t. I have however made the following suggestion before. There are a lot of very super wealthy people in the Orthodox world today. A lot more than at any other time in our history. Many are multi millionaires and even billionaires. Most of them are very generous. Without their support the system would crash.  (I actually know someone here in Chicago who is a multi billionaire and is one of the most generous people I have ever known!) 

If you are in that league… if  you are worth a billion or so dollars, you should be able to support the shortfall in a fairly large number of religious schools. Espically in out-of-town schools whose numbers are much smaller than in New York. Can anyone imagine what a half billion dollar endowment fund might do for these schools? If a billionaire would set up an endowment fund like that for all the schools here, he would still have a half billion left to spend on himself (or any other charity he wants). I don’t think they would lack for anything. 

For the record, Chicago actually has an educational endowment fund sponsored by the Jewish Federation. But to the best of my knowledge, there is not nearly enough money in it to cover the increasing yearly shortfall in our schools.  

Just sayin…