Addressing the Tuition Crisis

When discussing the current economic woes as they relate to Jewish education, it is important to note that there are two distinct crises, and that each of them requires its own strategy for solution. One crisis, which began relatively recently, affects the yeshivah day schools’ ability to meet their monetary obligations such as mortgage, utilities, and salary payments in a timely manner, and it affects the schools’ ability to budget for new or expanding necessary programs. The other crisis, which has been discussed for quite a few years now, affects the yeshivah day school parents, and has been commonly referred to as the “tuition crisis.”

The Department of Day School and Educational Services at the Orthodox Union (OU) has initiated a number of ongoing programs to help toward alleviating the first crisis. These programs include a nationwide health insurance plan for yeshivah day schools, funding assistance through the OU Education Toolbar project, the Kehillah Fund in various communities, and cost-cutting measures in the areas of energy and printing expenses. Yet, with all of these programs, as successful as they may be, it is unlikely that the result will be a significant reduction of tuition for parents. Our programs were designed to help schools meet their needs; they were not designed to lower tuition. I write this article, therefore, in the hopes of addressing the second crisis, the crushing burden of tuition costs on parents.

It is not an exaggeration to state that the effects of the tuition crisis can sometimes be horrific. Young married couples speak of having fewer children because of mounting yeshivah tuition costs; many couples speak of escalating tension, arguments, and in some cases, couples even report about marriages in jeopardy due to extreme financial pressures in the home. The stakes here are very high, and ought not to be underestimated, and the problem does not seem to be going away any time soon. Perhaps even worse, the current system of yeshivah day school education will not be able to be sustained as it is for too much longer. A survey of tuition costs in the greater New York area over the past five years reveals an average tuition increase of seven percent per year. This is nearly double the rate of inflation and double the rate of parents’ salary increases. At this rate, within five more years, an upper-middle income family with three children will not be able to afford yeshivah day school education. As a result, families that a few years ago would never have entertained alternative solutions such as Hebrew immersion public school programs are now willing to think about such options. As a community, we must consider serious, viable solutions for this crisis. Imposed family planning, serious marital tension, and public school enrollment are absolutely unacceptable.

By definition, there are only three possible approaches to solving the tuition crisis:
• increase revenues to the schools at such a high rate as to allow for a significant reduction of tuition,
• cut spending at the schools at such a rate as to allow for a significant reduction of tuition, and
• a combination of the first two approaches. Increased revenues at a high enough rate to slash tuition costs do not seem to be forthcoming, at least for the foreseeable future. Schools report a struggle just to keep up with revenue rates of past years—a major increase seems to be out of the realm of possibility. What remains, therefore, is the cost-cutting approach. The problem with this approach lies in ensuring that we do not cross a qualitative line in the core education being offered.

It is in this spirit that a group of concerned, intelligent and passionate parents in Bergen County, New Jersey, in consultation with the OU’s Department of Day School and Educational Services, recently proposed to their community a plan for developing a yeshivah day school model, based upon standards of excellence in the core education as a guidepost, with an affordable tuition of approximately $6,500 per year.

A survey of tuition costs in the greater New York area over the past five years reveals an average tuition increase of seven percent per year.

The proposal calls for a budget that includes
• Long-term rental of a facility with spacious classrooms and common areas, but not a large “campus” site
• Classes of 23-25 students each
• Teacher aides for pre-school grades from an internship program with schools such as Teachers College
• No full-time aides for classes past pre-school
• Average teacher salaries at or slightly higher than current day school rates
• A lean administrative structure (one principal, and some “master teachers” with administrative
• Administrator’s salary at somewhat less than the high current “market” rate among yeshivot
• A “Co-op Program” wherein parents are required to volunteer one hour of service per week to the school

The proposal does not include a program for special needs education, an after-school/extra-curricular program, extensive cutting edge technology, or costly participation in league sports.

This budgetary model is one that already works. The Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood, Florida, educates its students for less than the $6,500 per student budgeted here. (Ben Gamla, as a charter school, does not have a limudei kodesh program; however, its classes do include subjects that regular yeshivah day schools include in their limudei kodesh programs, such as Ivrit, historiah, and machshevet Yisrael). Some veteran educators and lay leaders have reviewed the proposed budget outlines, and confirmed that it is a viable plan. It should be clear that this plan does not call for an educational program identical to those of current day schools at a lower cost; rather, it calls for a model of cost-cutting that the planners feel does not cross a qualitative line in the core education being offered, and does afford Jewish education to a much larger group than the current model alone allows. It is very important to note that this proposal is not meant to replace the current model—it is meant to complement it.

I think it is important to point out that this is not a perfect solution. There are four critical issues that need to be addressed:
• This proposal will likely result in a perceived “caste system” —the haves and the have-nots.
• The model does not take into account tuition assistance for those who will need it even at the $6,500 level.
• The proposal does not address special needs education.
• The complementary and cooperative relationship between this school and the existing schools must be carefully planned and encouraged.

The “caste system” can be addressed, if not eliminated, by having inter-school programs, specific middot education, and involvement of community rabbanim in the form of speeches, shiurim, et cetera. Tuition assistance can be addressed by fundraising; since the total cost of education in this model is covered by tuition, any monies raised can be allocated directly to scholarships. Special needs education is a tougher issue to address. There are more and more current day schools that are opting to have special needs education costs borne by the individual parents; perhaps this is an option to explore and discuss further. The complementary and cooperative relationship between the schools will, of course, depend upon the good will of all educators and parents involved.

In a perfect world, this proposal would never be mentioned. This is not a “lechatchilah,” ab initio proposition; it is meant to respond to a severe crisis. Moreover, it is a proposal—a suggestion meant to initiate a comprehensive and thoughtful discussion, ultimately resulting in some tangible plan of action. At the end of the day, it is important to define the “lines in the sand.” What is not subject to compromise? If we say that the current system must remain as it is now with no alternatives for parents, what shall we say in a few years when the issues of imposed family planning, serious marital tension, and public school enrollment, along with a collapse of the current system as we know it, take their awful toll? It is not enough to say that we need to ensure the current, excellent system as it is, exclusively, for all students at an affordable rate “somehow.” The stakes are high; the time is now; how shall we proceed?

Rabbi Saul Zucker is the director of the OU’s Department of Day School & Educational Services.

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This article was featured in the Summer 2009 issue of Jewish Action.
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