Friday, September 16, 2005

The Message from Lawrence

We received a wake-up call a couple of months ago in the effort of Lawrence day school parents to reduce their tuition charges by having the local school district take over the academic portion of the curriculum. Because of constitutional and practical constraints, the plan has no chance of success. It has gotten attention, thereby accomplishing the important goal of getting more of us to think about the growing tuition crisis in many religious homes.

Not that there is reason to be optimistic that the larger Jewish community will alleviate the pressure on schools and parents. For decades, American Jewry cared little about day school education, regarding it as inconsistent with American ideals. This attitude remains a strong force in Jewish communal planning. There was a spike in support for day schools after the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey scared the daylights out of us about Jewish continuity. Even so, actual support remained modest, with the exception of contributions for day school construction, notably in the non-Orthodox sectors.

The record in New York is dreadful, even taking into account that the large concentration of day schools in the area makes it extremely difficult to provide significant support to the 300 or more schools in the New York Federation's service area. It's disgraceful that Federation cut back the little that it did by terminating basic grants to local religious schools. Much of the funding snatched from day schools has been allocated to silly projects of the sort that routinely find favor with those whose titles are inverse to their knowledge of Jewish life. In our long experience, it's doubtful that any community has had a shabbier record than New York.

What about the Orthodox? With more than 80% of day school enrollment, the Lawrence wake-up call was primarily aimed at them. Here, too, the record is nothing to applaud. Orthodox organizations and leaders have stood idly by as steadily rising tuition and steadily expanding family size have combined to create a crisis in an expanding number of religious homes.

The prevailing attitude is that a religious Jewish education is a service or product that like other services and products must be paid for by the consumers - meaning the parents - irrespective of their financial situation. This attitude is alien to our tradition and cruel to people who live good Jewish lives and struggle to make ends meet. Our callous attitude takes a heavy toll in shalom bayis or family relations. There is pain and tears and even tragedy. It is asinine to suggest that Torah education is akin to a product that we purchase in a store.

Our approach to tuition is also based on dubious economics, on the view that the cost can rise each year without there being a point at which price resistance results in diminished demand for the product. There obviously is price resistance among the non-Orthodox. The Lawrence episode suggests that at least among the modern Orthodox, a point may be reached where a growing number of parents say that they have had enough. The growing interest in home schooling in other parts of Orthodoxy is another sign that cost matters. One fascinating offshoot of the tuition crisis is the phenomenon of "tuition refugees," a term that refers to families of limited income that have made aliya in order to avail themselves of low-cost Israeli education and avoid the huge bills from American Jewish schools.

As day school costs and tuition go up, there is a corresponding decline in the ability of our community, including the philanthropic sector, to devise ways of helping the families most in need. There are 210,000 dayschoolers, grades K-12. At an average figure of $8,000 per student, the annual operating bill comes to more than $1.5 billion. If we estimate that half of the students are legitimately in need of meaningful financial assistance, the scholarship tab would be huge, certainly beyond what can be raised through contributions. The determination of each school to raise funds is a critical factor in determining whether scholarship assistance is available. In most non-Orthodox and modern-Orthodox schools, fundraising takes a back seat, so that scholarships are hard to come by.

Schools that make a serious fundraising effort would likely have better results if the consumerist mentality were abandoned and replaced by the attitude that it is a mitzvah to help basic religious education. It would also help if Rabbinical leaders and the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools publicly reject the consumerist attitude and call for communal support for yeshiva elementary schools and high schools. It has been years since yeshiva deans last declared that there is a religious obligation to support local yeshivas and day schools. Synagogues that once made appeals for local schools have in most neighborhoods stopped doing so. This, too, is wrong.

The good news is that there are first stirrings of improvement. The other news is that at least in the short run - and perhaps much longer - the rejection of the consumerist mentality will not go far to alleviate the situation, as day school costs rise each year. It is unrealistic to expect that help for needy parents may be around the corner. What is wrong in day school funding is cumulative, the product of neglect over the past generation. If there is to be improvement, inevitably it will come slowly.

Our community and schools must think of other approaches and solutions, which also is what the Lawrence message is about. As difficult as it may seem, schools must establish endowments. Even a modest start will yield fruit down the road, as endowment funds tend to grow. Too few day schools officials recognize the critical role that endowments can play in stabilizing a school's finances, so enmeshed are they in the daily struggle to get by.

We need to be creative and bold and explore income approaches that have not been on our radar screen. Although this was not the intention, ultimately this may be the legacy of Lawrence.