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Are There Really Solutions to the Tuition Crisis?

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Originally posted by  on Emes Ve-Emunah

One of the many problems plaguing the Orthodox Jewish community is the high cost of Jewish education. In an existential sense, I think it is the biggest problem of all. That is no secret here. It is a subject that is dealt with regularly.  One which seems to defy resolution.

To briefly re-state the obvious, a decent Jewish education that provides high quality religious and secular studies programs with high quality teachers is expensive. School budgets require enormous sums of money to pay for that.  You are not going to get high quality teachers if you don’t offer them a decent living wage.

It is therefore not rocket science to see that the cost of all faculty and administration salaries plus overhead (including supplies and equipment) divided by the number of families in a school would make decent middle class income all by itself. $80,000 dollars is not an exaggeration these days as a total figure based on a $20,000 cost per child for a family with 4 children.

I have expressed my frustration at these numbers in the past and have found little in the way of solutions that would lessen the financial burden on parents.  The fact is that no parent is ever asked to spend their entire income for tuition. That means that every family of typical size (except for the very wealthy) gets a reduction in tuition. Which the school board has to make up in their fundraising projects.

In the vast majority of cases, there is a shortfall in the budget at the end of the year that requires the school to borrow. If this happens every year… the debt load of the school becomes unsustainable and eventually lending institutions will stop lending.

There are some very creative ways that some schools have found to raise money. Some of them quite annoying, but necessary. Like school money. Schools actually print their own money which can be used at various establishments in lieu of actual cash. Parents are required to buy it from the school at face value and spend it to buy goods from prearranged stores and assorted vendors. Who then take that money and exchange it at the school at a discount. (Not sure what it is – but let’s say 10%). That means that the school makes 10% of every school dollar bought and spent by a parent. If the school requires that parents buy $10,000 worth of school money, then the school brings in an additional $1000, per family. If there are 500 families in a school, that’s a half million dollars – a hefty return on that project.

There is the Kehilla Fund here in Chicago which every community should have. This very successful project ends up with a similar amount of money distributed to all the Orthodox schools here. It entails pledging a fixed amount of money every month to the fund – having it automatically charged to your credit card. People can pledge as little as $5 to as much as they want. From their beginnings in 2004 to date they have distributed over $7,000,000.

There is the Yosef Walder plan or finding quality secular studies teachers and sharing them with all the schools. Their salaries are divided by all the schools… and they teach in all of them. The schedules of each school are co-ordinated so that that teachers subject is taught at a different time in each school. This can be done with all secular subjects.

In Chicago, the Jewish Federation allocates a hefty sum to each of the schools based on the number of children enrolled.  They have also established an endowment fund specifically designed for Jewish education.

There are of course major fundraising events, like banquets, concerts, picnics, Melave Malkas, raffles, etc.

And there are the wealthy Orthodox entrepreneurs that donate generously to the school (…to the tune of millions of dollars over the years. Some doing so anonymously.)

But even with all of that, it is not enough. The demand for high quality education requires it be paid for accordingly..,. and the numbers just do not add up.

How do we make up the shortfall? Some parents – understandably upset by high tuition costs – have suggested that their school wastes a lot of money on things they don’t need. Saying for example that the  school has too many secretaries.

But they are really in no position to judge whether the school wastes money or not. Overseeing the school budget to make sure there is no wasteful spending  belongs to the board of directors. I assure you that not a single one of them wants the school to waste a single dollar. Dollars that they have either donated or raised for the school by their hard work.

Which brings me to the OU. They have announced a massive push to get the government to fund Jewish education. From the Forward, here is what Allen Fagin, Executive Vice President of the OU said at their bi-annual convention:

“We all recognize that the real solution to the tuition crisis lies in using our political power and our advocacy efforts to increase state and local government funding for yeshivot and day schools,”

Ordinarily this might be seen as a violation of the separation clause of the first amendment. An amendment continues to serve the Jewish community quite well. I wouldn’t want to tamper with it. But the truth is that there are areas where the government can help that do not violate the constitution and are already being utilized by religious schools.

There is one area however that in my view in no way violates the constitution and yet is denied to us. It is controversial – and I understand that. But I do not understand why. If there is going to be a government mandate for free secular education, it should be applied to all taxpayers regardless where their children receive their education. This means that any subject that is taught in the public schools and paid for by the government should be taught and paid for in parochial schools. I see no reason to differentiate between public private educations when the government requires that the exact same subject be taught in both schools.

Is it not a denial of rights to not pay for secular education of those who chose to add a religious dimension to their children’s education? If there is a fear that religion would somehow corrupt the secular curriculum, why not set up standards to see that it does not happen? And even if I were to concede that religion might enter into some subjects (like science), at least those subjects that are religion neutral (like math or US history) can easily be given the same treatment in parochial schools as they are in public schools. Why not fund those teachers no matter where they teach, instead of only paying them if they teach in public schools?  How would that violate the separation clause?

I realize that this will never happen for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with state government’s own financial shortfalls. And the accusation by opponents that doing so is a violation of the constitution. But I don’t see how anyone could honestly say that teaching math in a parochial school is any different than teaching it in a public school. If taxpayers are paying for educating their young citizens, then no one should be penalized because they have added religious classes to their curriculum. I have never had this position satisfactorily explained to me.

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