Monday, December 25, 2006

Shortchanging Day Schools

New York's highest court has ordered the state to add about two million dollars to what it provides to New York City public schools, a tidy sum but less than half of what city officials believe is coming to them. Had they gotten all of what they wanted, per student expenditures would have risen by between $4,000-$5,000, a figure that matches what more than a handful of local Jewish day schools spend per student for a dual curriculum program.

I do not believe that money is the answer to all that ails public education. Most of what erodes the ability of public schools to properly educate children occurs outside of the school, in the home and street where family and behavioral pathologies abound and in the collateral damage caused by a popular culture that is at once exciting and destructive. The reach of the school is limited.

Still, classroom size can make a difference and this is true of the basket-full of other educational enhancements that cost money. If public education is shortchanged, what can we say about our schools? In the New York area, the average expenditure per child in Jewish day schools is not much more than half of what it is in public schools.

There are day schools that charge $20,000 or more tuition, schools where the word "scholarship" is scarcely recognized. These schools provide electives, extracurricular activities and usually a first-rate facility, their goal being to make the institution attractive to parents who have other educational options. High tuition buys much, yet it comes at the high Judaic cost of turning away an indeterminate number of prospective parents, including those of marginal religiosity whose children would benefit from a meaningful Jewish education. There is the added hardship in the large number of day school families that are hard-pressed to meet their tuition obligations.

The schools that get by on less than $5,000 per student scrimp on everything, including maintenance and curriculum. To boot, they tend to serve students who need additional educational and other services, as their enrollment inordinately consists of children from poor homes and immigrant and outreach families. The schools make do primarily because of the dedication and sacrifice of shockingly underpaid faculty. Inevitably, students at these schools do relatively poorly on standardized tests, a circumstance that the philanthropic sector often uses to justify the refusal to assist these institutions.

Rich and poor day schools in the city share the common fate of being victims of Federation neglect. The story is different around the country, as in an expanding number of communities Federation and philanthropic support of day schools has increased. In New York, the little that was done has become littler because several years ago Federation eliminated basic grants. While there has been talk of Federation atoning a bit for its misdeed, not a penny of what was taken away has been restored.

It's true that because of their large number, New York's yeshivas and day schools present a fundraising challenge that probably can never be resolved satisfactorily. More than half of all U.S. day school enrollment is in the New York metropolitan area, with the annual operating budget approaching one-billion dollars. When combined with New Jersey's enrollment, the share reaches two-thirds. It is unavoidable that for nearly all yeshivas and day schools, the bulk of the income must come from tuition.

This does not excuse philanthropic neglect and certainly not the shortchanging of schools that operate on a shoestring and cannot attract even modest support. Nor is there any excuse for the prolonged silence of Orthodox organizations and leaders. They talk much about the tuition crisis, doubtlessly with sincerity, yet they are unwilling to challenge Federation or to advocate on behalf of day schools. Inadvertently, they give aid and comfort to those who shortchange day schools. While they may claim that they are working behind the scenes, it remains that the tuition crisis worsens, as does the pressure on the large number of yeshivas and day schools that live a hand to mouth existence. Is it disrespectful to suggest that organizations that know how to produce press releases proclaiming this or that accomplishment speak out on behalf of our most vital institutions?

There is no quick fix to the problem. The best we can hope for on the income side is a modest increase of support from conventional philanthropic sources. For all of the attention that it is getting, government aid will not come in abundance, as much because of financial constraints on the public treasury as from constitutional constraints.

What is critical is whether there will be Orthodox advocacy for basic Torah education. Day schools were once the crowning achievement of American Orthodox life, the foundation on which our religious resurgence was built. Were there no yeshivas and day schools in the formative years of Orthodox growth, many of them supported then and even today by persons who were not Orthodox, the destruction of American Jewry would be far more advanced than it is today. Unfortunately, we have embraced the alien notion that religious Jewish education is a parental responsibility and not also a communal responsibility.

The message - it is unintended - sent out by Orthodox religious and lay leaders is that day school education at the elementary and high school levels is not a tzedakah priority, at least not for institutions located in North America. As a consequence, the poorer schools in particular are not able to adequately provide the education and services that their students need.

There are now substantial pockets of great affluence among the fervently Orthodox. In the chassidic sector, yeshivas are a primary beneficiary of the tzedakah given by a group's adherents. Not so in the yeshiva world. Unless yeshiva deans who are the acknowledged leaders of the day school world come to recognize that they have an obligation to lead, our schools will continue to be shortchanged.