Wednesday, November 09, 2005

RJJ Newsletter - Tuition Crisis

There is at long last heightened awareness of the tuition crises confronting a great and growing number of religious families. After years of silence about the subject, despite powerful evidence that constantly rising tuition begets enormous pain, there is talk that something needs to be done. This is good news, yet before we start celebrating we need to recognize that we are far from being out of the woods, that any effort to provide meaningful relief to families that deserve relief faces long odds.

I have raised the tuition issue for nearly the entirety of my one-third of a century as RJJ's president. As much as I may want to think or claim otherwise, my advocacy has essentially failed. Torah Umesorah - the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools has been extremely negligent in this area and its once glorious record has been tarnished. Roshei Yeshiva have been occupied with other causes and other issues. Over the years I have been a lone voice protesting against the wrongness of an attitude that makes yeshiva education into a consumer product and the wrongness of an attitude that results in stress and pain in some of the best families that we have.

As this newsletter is being written, I am at the halfway point in a campaign, expressed through a series of full-page messages that are appearing in the Jewish Press that aim to challenge the prevailing notion that basic Torah education is not a communal responsibility. It is telling that Hamodia and Yated Ne'eman, the English-language weeklies that serve the yeshiva world and certain chasidic sectors, turned down these messages because they did not want to go into controversial territory. What we need, in fact, is more discussion and debate and not only about tuition but about a wide range of issues affecting American Orthodoxy.

We have become afraid of controversy, even afraid of disagreement. In my youth, at the Agudah conventions and elsewhere, Gedolei Torah often disagreed with one another and they did not shy away from dealing with subjects that might breed dissent. They also had no problem with laymen taking positions on key issues, including those that were controversial. Without advocacy that is accompanied by a good dose of passion, there is scant prospect that the tuition situation will be improved.

Even with the most effective advocacy, the odds are quite long against significant improvement in the short term. As one of the as yet unpublished Jewish Press messages underscores, yeshiva and day school education in the New York metropolitan area alone costs about one-billion dollars a year. That's without taking into account capital expenditures for new and improved facilities or the cost of Beth Medrash and seminary programs, kollels and certain other religious educational activities. The obvious point is that Torah education is now extremely costly and expenses will continue to rise, with parents bearing a growing share of the burden because our schools must pay their staffs and bills.

While personnel costs obviously account for by far the largest share of the typical yeshiva budget, three other expenses provide insight into the hardship schools face as they try to make ends meet, a hardship that in turn is passed on to parents, too many of whom are trying to make ends meet. After 9/11, there were massive increases in the cost of insurance. It was also necessary for schools to devote scarce resources to ensuring security and this too has been costly. In the wake of Katrina and other events, energy costs have gone through the roof; as winter approaches, many schools are wondering how they will meet their fuel bills.

Torah education is a costly matter and getting more costly, although nearly all yeshivas and many day schools actually underspend because they are forced to cut back on vital services. Even if contributions rise, we have a long way to go until there will be meaningful relief. But we must begin. In part, our schools must pay more attention to fundraising and be more creative in this area. This means that lay leaders of yeshivas and day schools do not fulfill their responsibility when their role is essentially limited to setting tuition, limiting scholarship assistance and hoping that the annual dinner will be successful. They have to do a better job at fundraising than most of them are now doing.

However, if the status quo regarding communal support is not challenged and changed, even with the best of intentions few lay leaders will be able to avoid making decisions that essentially mean that parents have to pay more each year, irrespective of how limited they are financially.