By Joshua Levisohn, Ph.D.
This article was originally published in the Washington Jewish Week on December 14, 2011.
In communities from Washington to L.A., Chicago to New York, the problem of day school affordability dominates many Shabbat table conversations. With three or four children in day school, a family must earn well over the mean income just to pay tuition, and that is before considering food, shelter, clothing or transportation. The sheer sums of many of these tuition bills are frightening.
Peering beneath the numbers is an even more complicated story. Tuition has risen only modestly in the last three years but scholarships have exploded, in many schools more than doubling since 2008. At the same time, fundraising has stagnated, as it has in many nonprofits since the recession began.
These financial realities have caused schools and parents to worry about the future viability of the day school model. Based on this concern, which unites Jews from around the country, the Orthodox Union convened a two-day summit this past weekend with 150 community rabbis, heads of day schools, lay leaders and national foundations to discuss the problems and potential solutions. Within this context, even as the difficulties surfaced, the value of day school education was taken for granted.
During the past 100 years, the day school movement has grown to include 200,000 children per year and has raised generations of young men and women who are Jewishly knowledgeable, confident in their identity, committed to the Jewish community and to America, infused with Jewish religious and moral values and quite disproportionately represented among Jewish and American communal leadership. By most measures, the day school movement has succeeded well beyond the dreams of the original founders. Yet it is now at a crossroads.
Organized by Nathan Diament, director of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs, the summit took many different tacks in pondering this situation. One particularly intriguing session explored the role of political advocacy in tapping into public resources that could or should come to day schools, including special needs services, textbooks, busing, vouchers, and business tax credits, benefits that many states other than Maryland already provide in some measure. Another session provided an insight into the model of online education or blended learning that could potentially reduce costs in individual schools by raising the teacher-student ratio. A third session focused on various benchmarking projects that could help identify efficiencies and cost savings. Absent a radical new paradigm for effective Jewish education, however, the fundamental dilemma of day school affordability will not disappear quite so easily.
As heads of school, my colleagues and I are tasked with ensuring that schools remain affordable. But we also must ensure that schools remain excellent. One without the other cannot succeed. Even with budget trimming, effective use of technology, and maximization of whatever public funding exists, the underlying reality remains that providing a high quality education in any setting is a costly endeavor, as our own public school systems can attest.
For this reason, the main message that emerged from the OU summit was the following: If our communities want to maintain their day schools, then a broader base of support must be developed. Our youngest, most financially vulnerable, and most committed families are struggling. They are struggling to pay their tuition bills and some are struggling with the very decision of whether to provide a Jewish education for their children. They hold our most precious assets, our future generation of Jewish teachers, leaders, and parents, but they cannot pass on their Jewish commitment alone. Many Federations, national foundations such as the Jim Joseph Foundation, and individual donors have recognized this and have helped tremendously.
It is my deep hope that the OU summit and gatherings like it that are occurring around the country help to galvanize the effort needed to ensure that day schools remain a vital part of our Jewish community fabric for decades to come. We have seen the tremendous success of the last 100 years of day school education. What will the next 100 years bring?
Joshua Levisohn is the headmaster of the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy.