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The Tuition Crisis: A Personal Reflection

September 6, 2011

The word “tuition” may not have preceded the word “crisis”, but the circumstances were so similar and the consequences so identical that it’s probably worth a lead-in…

In the late 1980s, the U.S. was experiencing a devastating economic downturn. With only one school age child at the time, and because luxury lifestyle choices took a back seat to the price of Jewish education, tuition was manageable. It became a crisis anyway when the second child’s extensive special educational needs could not be met by existing day school resources.

The day I walked into the local public school and had to file registration papers, my heart was broken. In retrospect, OK, they gave him a first rate special education; OK, they were tolerant of the kippah on his head and accommodating about kashrut considerations; and OK, the spared tuition pretty much covered an afternoon rebbe at the community kollel. I consoled myself with equal measures of acceptance and regret, but in all these years I have not stopped considering the unseen cost of my son’s tuition-free special education. What he lost out on was the social-spiritual experience. For a special needs child, every sense of “group belonging” becomes a critical experience.

It didn’t help that over the years I commiserated with families who struggled with similar choices. The U.S. Department of Education estimates the overall percentage of students served in programs for disabilities is 13.4%. The Jewish population is not exempt, but putting aside the subject of special needs, a strikingly familiar scenario is playing out in countless other places across North America. This time, it’s not about the need for special ed resources; it’s about the need for dollars and “sense” – the cost of a day school education no longer makes “sense” and has become so economically untenable that families are increasingly opting out.

OU’s Dr. Simcha Katz summed it up in his recent President’s Message:

“The number one expense for most traditionally observant families is, of course, day school tuition. Consider a family with four children earning $200,000/year. Only 3.5 percent of Americans earn more, and yet such families are having difficulty paying tuition bills that typically exceed their mortgage obligation… this problem has been decades in the making, and we now are facing a broken and unsustainable system.”

What we are also facing is a growing grass-roots constituency looking for alternatives, not all of them optimal in the minds of many. There’s a slow brewing chant, increasingly audible in various articles and blogs you now find across the internet on the subject of observant Judaism’s high living costs. Taking specific aim at the bottom line of this year’s tuition statements, it’s starting to sound a lot like pop culture’s impassioned diatribe from the 1976 movie, Network: “I’m mad as _ _ _ _ and I’m not going to take it any more!” Howard Beale, fictitious longtime anchor for UBS Evening News galvanized a nation with his rant, but how are we going to galvanize the Jewish nation in order to create workable solutions?

Dr. Katz felt compelled to note one of the obvious dilemmas of the remarkable affluence enjoyed by today’s Jewish communities despite the bleak economy:

“At the outset, we should be honest: Jewish education has always entailed an element of sacrifice and it always will. This is particularly difficult for our generation, as we have been unusually blessed with prosperity; many of us have grown accustomed to living an upper-middle-class lifestyle—despite the fact that many of us can no longer afford to do so.

Our grandparents and parents paid tuition, but they rarely, if ever, took mid-winter vacations or purchased new vehicles on a regular basis. They lived in small apartments or in homes that were far more modest than those we live in today. The economic downturn has created a new financial reality for many of us. As such, we need to rethink our lifestyles and reassess our spending habits.”

Reassessments not withstanding, and many of us agree with Dr. Katz’s evaluation, other solutions are being solicited. We really have no choice given some of the personal narratives that are now unfolding. An anonymous blogger (200KChump) created a site to give struggling families a forum for discussing how the tuition crisis is affecting their lives and has opened up the search for alternatives. Much of the input is simultaneously compelling and heart-breaking. But even without resorting to blogs, sad stories are being told closer to home. In one instance it came down to day school tuition or health insurance.

Sam G. (name changed), shared the following:

“A Jewish day school education for our children has been a priority from day one. We don’t take vacations, we don’t send the kids to summer camps, and we don’t maintain an over the top lifestyle. We’ve bypassed opportunities to renovate our home, move into a large house, or relocate to a more affluent neighborhood.

This year’s medical insurance premium is quadruple our mortgage payment. Come September, our tuition commitment is quadruple our mortgage payment. Applications for other medical insurance policies are declined because of pre-existing conditions, and giving up medical insurance is not an option. One family member has already survived a life-threatening illness, so it’s not a risk we’re going to take and health care reform is still on the horizon.

What’s our alternative? I’m already a sole proprietor and doing well despite the difficult economy we’re experiencing. Our savings plan for retirement is on the back burner and our income has peaked. It would be imprudent and financially irresponsible to assume debt to cover tuition. I would absolutely differ with anyone who suggests there’s an emunah-deficit in our situation, given what my family has been through. I find myself amazed and perplexed that we find ourselves having to consider the prospect of not re-enrolling some of our children in a Jewish day school for the coming year. How did it come to this?”

Shira Hirschman Weiss, a writer, entrepreneur and content contributor for the Huffington Post (Jewish School Tuition Crisis: Parents Feeling ‘Priced Out’ of Their Religion) posted a recent story about Deborah (not her real name), a young mother from Teaneck who had chosen to enroll her older child in a newly approved Hebrew Immersion Charter School. In this model, however, Hebrew language and culture is offered in lieu of a religious education. Many of Deborah’s friends expressed outrage that she would opt for a “non-Jewish” education, and in the end, state funding was delayed.

Most orthodox constituencies are not in favor of replacing the day school system with a publicly funded cultural charter devoid of religious instruction. Unfortunately families are starting to consider it, but there are some interesting alternatives out there; the OU’s newly formed Task Force on Jewish Education Affordability has been developing pilot programs and interfacing with communities, Federations and local school boards.

Most importantly, OU’s Institute for Public Affairs continues to support efforts on various legislative initiatives to assist day schools on both federal and state levels. IPA has been aggressively advocating an array of initiatives, including tax credits for: scholarship contributions, state support for busing and special education services, homeland security, energy efficiency grants and other opportunities for legislative breakthroughs toward tuition relief.

Because the OU is currently expanding its efforts, it hopes to encourage creativity with a strategic “Challenge Grants” campaign. The awards are intended to “challenge” or stimulate matching grants from local federations, foundations and philanthropists with the aim of supporting pilot programs. Such initiatives must have broad communal support or represent innovative/replicable approaches to day school affordability. Grants will be awarded for up to three years in the range of $50,000 – $150,000 for promising proposals that can be realistically implemented and potentially duplicated. The grant application period is September 1- October 28, further information can be found at: OU Challenge Grants and Day School Affordability.

As a personal reflection, despite a nest that’s nearly empty, this issue still concerns me. I may be beyond the tuition crisis but the memory of that long ago experience remains. It doesn’t take much imagination to look into Jewish education’s crystal ball. The current crisis now carries implications about what will be when, God willing, my children have children. How will our communities facilitate our passing the torch of “v’shenantam levanecha” to future generations?

To learn more, or to register an application, please visit: OU Challenge Grants and Day School Affordability