Monday, November 18, 2002

Money and Education

Other than ersatz status, does $20,000 per tot buy a vastly superior nursery program,
TLC and other goodies that are not provided at nurseries that cost half that amount or even less? This is one of the less than intriguing questions arising from the revelations about Jack Grubman, Sanford Weill and the 92nd Street Y.

I am asked from time to time whether increased per student expenditures have a significant impact on the quality of Jewish day school education. The same issue arises more importantly regarding public education, but that is a subject for another article. While it’s obvious that more money usually buys more and better, the issue isn’t all that simple, as I learned in a recent visit to two day schools serving a community away from New York.

At one school, the annual cost per student is about $20,000, which is more than twice what it costs to educate a public school student in the same state. It’s also about three times the average cost of a Jewish day school education in the U.S. The added funding means better paid teachers, small classrooms, more administrators, two teachers per class and other extras. At this nondenominational community day school, students are challenged and there is a sense of educational superiority. Tuition is about $15,000 and, with scholarship assistance, income from this source does not cover the budget. About $1 million must be raised each year for a school of fewer than 150 students.

The second school is Orthodox, has about 200 students in separate boys and girls divisions and is housed in terribly inadequate facilities. Tuition is about $6,000, but a majority of the students receive scholarship assistance. Funds are not available for special educational services or other enhancements. There is a constant struggle to meet obligations. The administrators are overburdened and underpaid, which is true of the faculty, although from the look of things, students are happy and learning.

The community school is clearly the stronger of the two. It’s a safe bet that its students do better on standardized tests and other measures of academic achievement. We do not need tests for us to know that its students are better read and more culturally aware. The extra money spent on educating students makes a difference.

The second school is typical of a large number of Orthodox yeshivas and day schools, as well as some that aren’t Orthodox. Starved for funds, they make do in buildings that are poorly maintained and which do not contain some of the basic accoutrements of an educational institution. The philanthropic support they receive from outside sources is a pittance as most large donors believe that it’s a greater mitzvah to feed the rich than to assist the needy.

Better and stronger does not mean that all of the $20,000 buys extra value or a better product. To determine whether added funding brings added benefits, we must factor for self-selection, for the capabilities of students when they are first enrolled in the school. The community school students are already better read, more sophisticated, etc. when they commence the regular school grades.

A similar point is made about the Judaic benefits of yeshivas whose students come from observant homes. They are already religious, while in non-Orthodox day schools a significant proportion of the students usually are not. While yeshivas add to religious socialization and knowledge, there is a pre-selection so that they cannot take full credit for the level of religiosity among their students. Likewise, day schools that cater to highly educated and motivated families whose children are introduced to books and cultural stimuli at a young age cannot take full credit for the academic accomplishments of their students.

They might take credit for what their students learn and practice about Judaism. Unfortunately, the Judaic minimalisim of many day schools results in minimalistic Judaic outcomes. Parents and school officials tend to assess educational progress in terms of general academic achievement, with Judaics taking a back seat. Judged by a Jewish educational standard, the $6,000 per year school in the community that I visited is performing at least as well as the $20,000 a year institution. While the more expensive school may well be doing a decent job Jewishly, it’s not delivering added value commensurate with what it is charging.

To a degree that is imprecise, some of the high tuition charged at posh schools arises from the snob factor. What is being paid for is a brand name, as well as an education, and brand names cost more. This is evident when the super rich want to ensure that their tykes gain entry into elite pre-schools. There are, for sure, nurseries that charge $5,000 which do as good a job as the four-times as expensive 92nd St. Y. The Y can overcharge for its product because it is confident that it can find buyers who are willing to overpay as the price for allowing them to boast.

A similar instinct – albeit not as foolish – is at work when parents insist on sending their teenagers to elite private colleges, deliberately foregoing public universities that they wrongfully regard as inferior. I have heard parents say that they cannot send their children to a Jewish day school or high school because they have to save in order to send their kids to expensive colleges.

At the end of the day, higher per student expenditures for day schools are often translated into meaningful benefits in the form of electives, tutoring and counseling, libraries and athletic facilities, extra-curricular activities and more. But we need to recognize that these schools exist for Jewish reasons and this aspect is frequently neglected, especially in the more expensive day schools. We also need to see that some of what is being paid for is nothing other than a brand name and snob appeal.