Monday, April 30, 2001

Day School Blues

A recent visit to a day school that serves immigrant families provides additional evidence that while in some respects this is the best of times for Jewish education in the U.S., in other respects it is also the worst of times. In a community that is driven by the imperative of public relations, we usually get to hear only the good news.

There is much to celebrate. Day school enrollment is growing steadily in New York and elsewhere and it will easily pass the 200,000 mark when the next school year begins in four months. While much of this increase results from Orthodoxy’s high fertility rate, there is also significant growth in the non-Orthodox sectors. Day school education is now accepted, at times enthusiastically, in places and homes where it was once regarded as the wrong way to go.

Moreover, there is an extraordinary building boom in the day school world. I estimate that in the 2000-2005 period, at least 200 or one-quarter of the day schools in the U.S. will be in one stage or another of expanding or improving their facilities. This represents a huge capital investment of perhaps one-billion dollars.

So what can be bad? The school that I visited gives part of the answer. It is one of a considerable number of low-tiered day schools that cater to immigrant, outreach and poor families. Its operating budget for nearly 300 students comes to about one-million dollars or $3,500 per year per student. The annual cost for a public school student in New York and New Jersey is above $10,000 and there are constant complaints that the public schools in these states are badly underfunded. There are Jewish day schools, some with a limited Jewish studies component, that charge well in excess of $10,000 per year. Then there are the immigrant and outreach schools and those for the poor that attempt to provide a dual education program at a cost of about one-third of what is being expended elsewhere. These schools and many yeshivas cover only a small part of their budgets through tuition income.

It would take a miracle for such schools to have strong and attractive programs, with the enhancements and facilities that are expected elsewhere. Trees may grow in Brooklyn; miracles do not. Too many schools struggle to get by and have no resources for special or, at times, basic needs. Furthermore, their weaknesses are self-perpetuating, as more affluent and more Jewishly-secure parents obviously do not send their children to such institutions. The philanthropic sector does little to help on the ground that it is wrong and futile to assist schools that, after all, are not doing a good job.

There is an unfortunate tendency among philanthropists to support the richer and stronger schools, they also being the institutions that offer the least scholarship assistance. As a reward for their decency and caring, yeshivas and day schools that reach out to the poor and marginally-involved Jewish families receive the short end of the philanthropic stick.

Support for day schools is further undermined by the expanding tendency to embrace the worst practices of public education. Tens of millions of dollars a year are allocated for trips, conferences, training programs and the rest of the effluvium of educational bureaucracies that specialize in the perverse notion that the best way to support education is to fund activities that do not occur in the classroom.

The Orthodox philanthropic sector that is the mainstay of support for lower-tiered schools increasingly focuses on educational initiatives in Israel and on establishing kollels. The attitude is that basic religious education will somehow be favorably transformed as a consequence. The major transformation so far is that weak schools have become even weaker and some may be forced to close.

Nor are the more affluent day schools problem-free. Non-Orthodox institutions operate in an environment permeated by secularism and assimilation, by an outlook that proclaims that Jewish life can be traditional even as our traditions are being abandoned. To be sure, there are non-Orthodox schools that maintain a definite religious commitment. But too many are minimalistic Jewishly and they are unwilling to attempt to upgrade the religiosity of their students and families.

These Jewishly-substandard schools may turn out to be less effective than the old Talmud Torahs or congregational schools that flourished throughout nearly all of the twentieth century and were the handmaiden to massive Jewish loss. It’s a stretch and then some to believe that such schools will make a meaningful contribution to Jewish continuity simply because they are called day schools.

As more schools lower their Jewish expectations to accommodate the reduced religiosity of their parent body, we will be confronted by incontrovertible evidence that they have failed Jewishly. We already have some data pointing in this direction.

As we celebrate the progress being made by day schools, let’s not forget why they exist and what we need of them. Let’s also not forget the poorer schools whose commitment and accomplishments are not being matched by communal support or even understanding.