Thursday, February 12, 2009

Economic Realities and Our Schools

A Five Towns parent of three young children, two already in day school, told me recently that a group of parents who are stretched out by ever-increasing tuition are thinking of enrolling their kids in public school and they would then attend an after-school program at a local synagogue for a far more intensive Judaic program than what is customarily provided in Talmud Torahs or supplementary schools. This isn’t the first such stirring in that community and like its predecessor of a couple years ago, it is likely to be doomed by ideological and other considerations. Still, this is one more sign of growing discontent in the day school world arising from rising tuition and financial realities in many religious homes.

A more remarkable indication is the February 4 meeting at an Englewood public school under the auspices of the local Board of Education. Nearly five-hundred parents showed up on a cold wintry night for a preliminary consideration of a “Hebrew dual language immersion program” in the local public schools. This obscure phrasing translates into the question of whether and how the school district can provide for the educational needs of the religious community.

An estimated two-thirds of the attendees were Modern Orthodox and they were there for a discussion of the admittedly remote possibility that their children would become public schoolers and still get a meaningful Jewish education. The message is that something potentially significant is developing in day school education. With the unwelcome but powerful stimulus of the severe economic downturn – even if we must avoid calling it a depression, that is what it is - we should expect transformative developments affecting non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox day school families.

Even without the bad economic news which for day schools means an increase in scholarship applications as parents lose their jobs and a decrease in fundraising income because contributors have suffered large investment losses, there were reasons for concern. I am conducting my third survey of day school enrollment, following up on the research I did in the 1998-99 and 2003-04 school years. This entails, among much else, contacting the schools included in the previous survey. There are always schools that close, invariably small institutions and not those with nearly 250 students. Yet, a Miami Solomon Schechter school with more than 200 students in 2003, from nursery through grade 8, now operates only as a preschool. The director tells me that most of the children were transferred to public school.

Doubtlessly, the decline in Judaic commitment that is afflicting Conservative Jewry was an important factor in what transpired at this school. Surely, tuition was also a consideration, as it now is in a growing number of schools. Day school parents are consumers and price is a factor in determining whether to go ahead. For fervently Orthodox families there is a religious obligation to provide a Torah education. For others, day school is not optional, yet it may not be regarded as mandatory if the product is priced out of the reach of prospective parents.

In Modern Orthodox schools in particular, tuition has been going up at a steady clip, far more than at other Orthodox and most non-Orthodox institutions. The tuition burden is a compelling factor in the aliyah decision of some families. Obviously, for most Modern Orthodox families aliyah is not an option because of financial and other considerations. Unless MO schools more carefully control costs and rid themselves of the notion that tuition must rise $500 or $1,000 and more each year, there will be more parents seeking an exit from day school, perhaps along the lines of what is being explored by Englewood and Five Town parents. If the severe economic crisis is long-lived, the prospect is that some families will crack and withdraw their children from Jewish schools.

Charedi or fervently Orthodox schools invariably live with tight financial shoes, even in the best of times. These institutions are, in the main, relatively generous in providing scholarship assistance to needy families and their tuition base is weak. The sharp economic downturn is making matters a good deal worse. A large girls school in Brooklyn is months behind in payroll and is planning to reduce its faculty by forty. A yeshiva tells me that it is five months behind and another that it is seven months behind and so it goes, without a silver lining to be seen.

The financial crisis is providing additional impetus for the still tiny and evolving world of charter schools that somehow incorporate into their academic program certain Jewish elements such as Hebrew in the curriculum. Mayor Bloomberg’s startling announcement that four Catholic schools in the Brooklyn Diocese that are scheduled to close may become charter schools is certain to whet the appetite of Jewish charter school aficionados. I remain doubtful that this avenue will become a significant factor in what may conveniently be called “Jewish” education.

Whether through charters or transfers from day school to public school, what is already evident in the day school world and what lies ahead because of the expanding financial carnage is that there will be a greater burden on public school budgets. In Englewood, the annual expenditure per public school student is nearly $18,000 and the figure isn’t much lower in other localities in the New York metropolitan area where two-thirds of all day school enrollment is located.

It would be far more efficacious from a financial standpoint if the public sector would foot the bill for the academic curriculum in religious schools. Thanks in large measure to the widespread American Jewish hostility to meaningful religious education and the corollary idol worship of total separation of church and state, this won’t happen. The paradox is that paranoia about church-state will most certainly result in public school districts being saddled with additional expenditures because of the establishment of additional charter schools and/or the transfer of religious school students to public schools.