Thursday, January 17, 2008

The World of Jewish Day Schools

Cheryl Brown and Chaya Braun – their names have been changed, but the facts are real – are in their second year of elementary school teaching and each is receiving $6,000 this year. For Ms. Brown, the figure represents a salary increase as she goes up a step on the pay scale for New York City public school teachers and also benefits from the raise provided in the new union contract. For Ms. Braun, $6,000 is what she will be paid this year for teaching at a Jewish day school.

There are other distinctions, including Ms. Brown being in a classroom a greater number of hours than Ms. Braun and also having a Masters degree in education, something that the Jewish school teacher does not have. She also receives full medical benefits and is on an attractive pension plan, two vital fringes that do not exist in Ms. Braun’s educational world.

There are, of course, yeshiva and day school faculty who earn considerably more. But the gap between what public school and Jewish school teachers are paid is substantial and it is rapidly expanding. Although certain affluent day schools pay well, they are a small minority. Few Jewish school faculty come even close to what teachers are paid in public school systems, even if they have impressive degrees and credentials.

At boys yeshivas and the religious faculty in day schools, low salaries have a limited impact on the school because there is a substantial recruitment pool of kollel students seeking positions. The story is different on the secular studies side because it is increasingly difficult for our schools to find competent teachers for conventional academic subjects. They used to rely on public school teachers who were moonlighting, but this source is drying up because the low pay has reduced the incentive to take a second job.

Many of our schools rely on recent graduates from the religious seminaries for women. This is becoming more problematic, as increasingly some of the best and brightest of these young women are choosing more lucrative careers. They know that their income will be crucial if they marry a kollel student or yeshiva teacher.

The near penury of many of our schools is evident as they scrimp on everything, including facility maintenance, enhancement for strong students and special attention to those who are weak. Despite their formidable difficulties, yeshivas and day schools do a credible and often a terrific job. This is primarily due to the extraordinary devotion of their faculty, women and men who are greatly dedicated to their students and work, spending a great deal of time preparing for their classroom responsibilities and often making themselves available to their students after the school day is over.

Commitment goes just so far. The penurious condition of most yeshivas and day schools exacts educational and other costs. It also adds to the burden on parents facing high and ever-increasing tuition bills as contributions constitute a declining share of the typical school budget.

There are bright spots. Over the past decade, 200 or one-quarter of all full-time Jewish schools in the U.S. have built new facilities or significantly improved their existing ones, reflecting the need to create additional seats to accommodate enrollment growth and also the willingness of people of means to make significant gifts to capital campaigns. Unfortunately, this generous spirit is scarcely evident on the operating side because the predominant view continues to be that day school education is a consumer product whose costs must be borne by the parents.

In the recent period, in a few communities local philanthropists have stepped up to the plate, making grants specifically to alleviate financial pressure on parents. Boston, Western Massachusetts, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Denver come to mind and I believe that there are others. Such gifts are an appropriate response to the expanding research pointing to day school education as the optimum way to promote Jewish commitment and continuity.

The story is much different in the New York/New Jersey area that constitutes more than two-thirds of all U.S. day school enrollment, with the percentage certain to grow because of the extraordinary high fertility in the chassidic and yeshiva-world sectors of Orthodoxy. The two-thirds statistic provides one explanation for the failure of New York and New Jersey Jewish schools to attract meaningful philanthropic and communal support.

In this area, there are non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox schools catering to more affluent families that charge high tuition and despite their success at fundraising seem to believe that “scholarships” is a dirty word. In line with the old saying that the rich get richer, the schools that charge the highest tuition and offer the least scholarship assistance are, in general, the most successful at fundraising.

At the other end of the spectrum there are New York and New Jersey schools that average no more than $5,000 per student in annual tuition – and there are those that take in less – and this for a dual curriculum. These institutions and most mainline Orthodox schools that serve families that have a household of children and must meet rising tuition obligations on a limited income need and deserve communal and philanthropic support. The scope of the problem – the number of students and the aggregate cost of their education – is a powerful barrier to any arrangement that might result in meaningful support. But this is no excuse for inaction, for providing no assistance.

There is no way for Federation and private Jewish philanthropy to come up with the many tens of millions of dollars that are needed annually to assist the most hard-pressed schools. This is no justification for the New York Federation terminating basic grants to these schools. There is now widespread agreement that my criticism of Federation was justified. It is time for Federation to do the right thing and to support the institutions that are our best guarantor of Jewish survival.