Friday, October 23, 2009

There are 230,000 children in day schools and yeshivas in the U.S., from four-year olds through the twelfth grade. The figure would be higher by at least 20,000 if younger children and post-high school students enrolled in these institutions were included. The operating budgets for these schools probably exceed two-billion dollars annually, with capital expenditures amounting to tens of millions of dollars more. Objective research conducted over the past twenty years shows conclusively that by a wide margin, day school education as an independent factor or variable contributes more to Jewish commitment and continuity into adulthood than any other communal activity.

I recently completed a third census of U.S. day schools. Like its 1998-99 and 2003-04 predecessors, this research was sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation whose philanthropy in North America has resulted in significant benefits to the day school world. The research reports grade by grade enrollment, as well as other vital information, for the more than 800 U.S. day schools and it adds to our understanding of contemporary Jewish life. It is doubtlessly my subjective engagement in this painstaking project that triggers my failure to understand how not even a tiny mention of the census has made it into this newspaper. Once more I am bothered and bewildered by what passes for American Jewish journalism. I am left with the task of reporting on my own report.

Over the past decade, enrollment has grown by nearly 25%, an astonishing growth rate. Most, but not all, of the increase is attributable to high Orthodox fertility, primarily in the yeshiva-world and chassidic sectors which constitute more than 55% of all enrollment. Since 1998, yeshiva-world enrollment has risen by 34%, so that there are now 64,000 students in these schools, while chassidic enrollment in the same period has gone up by 56% to a total of 61,000 students. In another ten years, the prospect is for chassidic enrollment of 100,000 or higher.

All told, five of every six dayschoolers are in Orthodox schools, a distribution that has increased gradually over the years. This trend is certain to continue because of fertility and also because of financial considerations, including the severe downturn from which the country has not yet recovered and the growing sense of marginally-involved parents that day school education is too costly. Already we are seeing parents opting out of day school.

Modern Orthodox schools continue to grow and now have 30,000 students, an increase of 10% in the decade, which is impressive in view of the meaningful number of young modern Orthodox families that in recent years have made aliyah. However, centrist Orthodox schools have lost students, in large measure I believe because of the contraction of Orthodox life in a number of communities away from New York.

An unsettling detail emerging from the census is the pronounced decline of immigrant and other schools with an outreach orientation. Some of this has to do with immigration patterns; yet another factor is the declining commitment to these schools in the Orthodox community. This development is offset to an extent by the rapid expansion of the Chabad school network, with 73 schools in the latest census, up from 44 ten years ago. Nearly all of the newer schools have an outreach mission and while many are small, even tiny, there is now within Chabad a strong determination to focus on day schools, a commitment that was absent until near the end of the Rebbe’s life.

Due to the strong showing of Community or trans-denominational schools, there has been a 2,000-student increase in non-Orthodox school enrollment since 1998. The Reform movement no longer focuses much on day schools, while the Solomon Schechter or Conservative schools mirror increasingly the infirm condition of this movement. These schools have lost one-fourth of their enrollment in the past decade and the bad news keeps on coming.

Forty percent of day schools enroll fewer than one-hundred students. Many of these institutions constantly struggle to get by, both financially and educationally. Several small schools that operated last year have closed since June and there are others that are on what can be fairly called the endangered list. Here, too, the state of the economy inevitably has an impact.

While there are day schools in forty states and the District of Columbia, New York and New Jersey are dominant, with 70% of all enrollment or more than 160,000 students. One astonishing statistic is provided by Lakewood, NJ, which has experienced a tripling in enrollment in ten years, from about 5,000 students to 15,000. Younger yeshiva-world families are opting to remain in Lakewood because of the religious ambiance and also the far lower cost of housing.

The New York-New Jersey day school story is a blessing that comes with a cost. Before the economic crisis hit, many schools in this area were behind in meeting their payroll and their situation has worsened over the past year, in some schools precariously. In August, Beth Jacob of Boro Park, a school with more than 2,000 girls, announced that it was deeply in debt and might not be able to open. It did open but there have been many layoffs and the debt remains. The sharp enrollment increases in chassidic and yeshiva-world schools will be translated into greater financial pressure. There is no communal planning, including among the Orthodox, to deal with what is already on the horizon.

Another cost is, as noted, the shrinkage of Orthodox life in many places away from New York. One interesting census statistic shows that outside of these two states, the 70,000 day school students are nearly equally divided between Orthodox and non-Orthodox schools, with the latter having 47% of the total.

What is certain is that the next five years will be a crucial period in day school education. Hopefully there will be a follow-up census.