Friday, December 30, 2005

Why Aren't the Orthodox Advocating for Day Schools?

I have been involved in day schools for more than fifty years, starting in my late teens when I volunteered to work for a newly established network of religious elementary schools in Israel. This involvement has encompassed research and writing, legal activity, service for a third of a century as president of America's oldest Jewish parochial school in continuous operation, development of philanthropic programs to assist day schools and advocating on behalf of these institutions. In short, I regard day schools as essential for the wellbeing of American Jewry.

At the level of rhetoric, many sincerely share this commitment. Unfortunately, in the translation of this commitment into reality, I have very little company or at least that is how I feel. This has been a lonely journey and never more lonely than in recent years. Among the Orthodox for whom religious education is a must, an alien attitude has gained prominence. It is that sending one's children to a yeshiva or day school is an act of consumerism and that like all other consumer products and services, it must be paid for by the purchasers, meaning the parents, irrespective of their ability to pay.

This attitude, which contrasts sharply with the traditional view that to a considerable extent religious education is a communal responsibility, has come to the fore at a time when the size of Orthodox families has increased dramatically, a circumstance that obviously adds enormously to their tuition burden. Even without tuition, Orthodox living is extremely costly. High tuition charges mean stress and pain in many homes. Since educational costs must go up and parents must foot nearly all of the bill, the amount of stress and pain increases regularly. The prospect is for escalating hardship in nearly all sectors of American Orthodoxy.

While several foundations provide meaningful help and day school capital campaigns can attract major gifts, communal support for the operating budgets of Jewish schools has declined. The record of American Jewry is shameful. In an article just published in the Jerusalem Post, Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, makes what he calls "the strategic proposal that the organized Jewish community in America guarantee a free Jewish education to the children of all members of the Jewish polity."

Dream on. Let us say amen and then recognize that there isn't a ghost of a chance that this proposal will come close to becoming a reality. Last year, the Fund for Jewish Education, controlled by the New York Federation, cut off basic grants to day schools, an evil act that scarcely drew a peep from Orthodox groups and leaders. Their message, inadvertently conveyed, was harm our schools and we will stand idly by.

Contrast this with what took place more than a generation ago - I believe in 1969 - when Irving Greenberg and others disrupted the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations and demanded support for day schools. Their protest bore fruit. But Orthodox groups and leaders have stopped advocating for day schools.

The picture isn't any better on the government aid front. Congress passed in 1963 the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation's first major piece of educational legislation. Although all three branches of the Federal government were controlled by strict church-state separationists, ESEA included parochial schools in benefit programs. This passed constitutional muster and parochial schools continue to benefit. While the Orthodox community was weaker at the time, it fought for this legislation.

Let's fast-forward nearly forty years to President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, the second major piece of federal education legislation. For all of the predent's religious leanings and the drift away in Congress and the Supreme Court from church-state intransigence, the new law managed to leave out all parochial school students and the Orthodox community did not bat an eyelash. In fact, there are grant programs that include religious schools without transgressing First Amendment restrictions.

Of course, yeshiva deans and Orthodox leaders and organizations would like to see day schools get public support. Unfortunately, they are too comfortable with the alien notion that this education is a consumer product and they are unwilling to mount the kind of effort that might produce results. Instead, they are content to have convention sessions and meetings on the "tuition crisis." Everyone then goes home and nothing happens.

I conclude this week a series of twelve full-page messages in the Jewish Press discussing financial realities confronting day schools and their parents. Two Orthodox weeklies, Hamodia and Yated Ne'eman, rejected these paid messages. While the grass roots response has been substantial, it is evident that the situation in many Orthodox homes is likely to get worse. While the pain is evident, what isn't seen is the growing number of families, most of them marginally observant, who walk away from day schools. One critical measure of the consequence of the failure to advocate for day schools is the sharp enrollment decline at schools with an immigrant or outreach orientation.