Thursday, May 21, 2009

Our Two Tuition Crises

There is much talk about the tuition crisis, about how day school parents feel that tuition is now out of their reach and also about how the scholarship application process is demeaning. We are told that other options are being explored, ranging from public school education that somehow would be linked to religious instruction to charter schools and now also low-cost day schools. This conversation was described nicely by Gary Rosenblatt a couple of weeks ago in a column that came with the unfortunate and inaccurate headline, “Day School Model May Now Be Thing of Past.”

We cannot precisely know what the Jewish educational terrain will look like when the dust settles – if it ever does – but what is certain is that the day school model will endure, albeit somewhat changed, which is generally true of all social arrangements. There will be additional charter schools and they will eat further into non-Orthodox/Modern Orthodox enrollment and, more critically, into the Judaic commitment of their students. The Solomon Schechter system will continue to erode, reflecting mainly the astounding decline of the Conservative movement that not long ago was heralded as American Jewry’s largest.

What is uncertain is how the tuition crisis will play out within the day school world, whether schools will be alert to what more parents are saying or whether they will continue to increase tuition significantly each year, further contributing to the tuition crisis. Efforts to launch low-cost schools where tuition will be half or less of what is charged at the more expensive day schools seem to be beyond the talking stage. If these institutions can offer a viable and reasonably good quality dual-curriculum at below $10,000, the necessary question is why at what seems to be comparable schools tuition is in the $20,000 range and, in some places quite a bit higher. Since the expensive schools are surely nonprofit, what are they spending so much on?

There is no simple answer. It may be that for a dual curriculum, $20,000 isn’t high when we consider that in New York and New Jersey the average cost to educate a single-curriculum publicschooler is about $15,000. Also, the carrying cost for new and improved facilities and to service existing mortgages may have a significant impact on day school operating budgets and therefore also on tuition charges.

It remains that in many ways, the tonier day schools fancy themselves as private schools with expensive layers of bureaucracy starting with the top educator who no longer can be called “principal” because he/she is now the headmaster, at times with principals serving below at the same school. There are department heads, all sorts of auxiliary staff, extra-curricular activities galore and other fine and expensive touches. This could be justified if per school enrollment was high. Typically, day school enrollment is relatively low. This obviously adds to the per student cost. It should also result in a greater sense of fiscal prudence.

While we hear much about the crisis resulting from escalating tuition, there is a second tuition crisis that escapes our attention although it affects far more schools and parents. With few exceptions, yeshivas and Beth Jacobs (girls schools) in the yeshiva-world and chassidic sectors of Orthodoxy, as well as Chabad day schools and immigrant schools, charge low tuition and even so they are hard pressed to collect anything close to full tuition from many parents. As improbable as it may seem, there are schools that spend below $5,000 per student for a dual curriculum and at these institutions and some others, tuition income does not amount to $3,000 per student. This is the tuition crisis that we do not read about, although it encompasses dozens of schools and at least several tens of thousands of students.

Family size and economic hardship account for the inability of thousands of fervently Orthodox parents to pay what may be regarded as fair tuition. As is obvious, the fertility rate is high and I believe it has risen within the yeshiva-world sector. Contrary to the nasty caricature that many embrace, fervently Orthodox fathers are overwhelmingly in the labor force, and there is a high proportion of working mothers, despite their family and home obligations. Many of these men and women teach in our schools or have other low-paying communal positions. Even those who are good earners by ordinary societal standards often cannot make ends meet because of the large number of mouths to feed, tuition charges and other expenses arising from their religious commitment.

Poorer schools scramble and struggle to collect tuition, yet they are severely handicapped by financial realities, including this year’s severe downturn, and also in most instances by their abiding sense of mission which translates into a willingness to accept or retain students whose parents pay relatively little tuition. This is in contrast to the demeaning scholarship processes favored by far more affluent institutions. Few fervently Orthodox schools utilize the FACTS tuition arrangement which squeezes and debases both parents and schools and which is employed now at a great number of high-charging day schools.

The poorer schools also scramble and struggle to raise funds. They compete in a crowded field and within a community that is blessed with an astounding array of chesed activities that also seek support. Contributions to Orthodox day schools is not a priority in nearly all of American Jewish philanthropy, not in the Federation domain and not even, in fact, among many of the Orthodox.

Most fervently Orthodox schools get by because they are extremely low-cost, skimping on everything, especially on faculty salaries as they rely on the dedication of teachers who work hard and care despite being paid little and often late. This isn’t a story that we read about. The next time we hear about the tuition crisis, is it possible to pay attention to this situation which involves far more schools and students than the tuition crisis that we do read about?