In response to my last column in Jewish Action (“Making Orthodox Life More Affordable,” summer 2011), I received a flood of responses—some critical, others positive—from Jewish Action readers. Obviously day school affordability is on everyone’s minds.
Irv Cantor from West Orange, New Jersey, wrote that I painted the tuition problem with “too broad a brush,” and that by criticizing parents and their lavish lifestyles, I was “blaming the victim.” Why, he asked, don’t I examine the spending habits of schools? Along the same lines, another writer noted that schools should be held responsible for “failing to be sufficiently sensitive” to the economic difficulties in which so many parents find themselves. There is no question that day schools should be more transparent and that schools must explore all avenues to trim expenses while maintaining educational quality. Matthew Bobman of New York offered cost-cutting suggestions for schools, such as group purchasing and consolidating employee benefit plans. Robert Friedman of Teaneck, New Jersey, agreed with my contention that the “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” syndrome plays a role here as well. Several readers suggested eliminating 12th grade, a significant saving right there.
Ultimately, however, I do not believe that any of these worthwhile ideas and suggestions will put an end to this escalating crisis. They may enable savings of perhaps 5 percent or so, which will be helpful and should be pursued, as Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership and others are doing. Such marginal changes will not, however, remove from parents, professionals and lay leaders the fundamental pressures of operating a dual curriculum private school, where 85 percent of what drives the cost is payroll. In the past ten years, tuition has doubled while family income has simply not kept pace. No communal issue—none—is more crucial than making observant Jewish life affordable for families. The day school affordability challenge threatens the Jewish future.
As a community, I think we need to admit that we have been asleep at the wheel. How did we allow the situation to get so out of hand? How did we look aside when we saw young families paying $40,000 to $50,000 and even more annually in tuition bills? Instead of griping at our Shabbat tables about the untenable situation, why didn’t we press our rabbinic and communal leaders to more concretely address the challenge? Why didn’t we lobby our elected officials to do more to address our “kitchen table” concerns? Why didn’t we work on forging relationships with legislators, on bringing our issues to Albany, to Trenton, and to state capitals around the country? Shame on us—including us at the Orthodox Union—for neglecting to more aggressively build these relationships.
We at the OU are determined to change the status quo, and we believe that with regard to this communal crisis, the legislative arena is where there is the most potential for profound change.
While the IPA—the OU’s public policy and political action arm—has worked for many years on various legislative initiatives on the federal level to assist our schools, in recent years, we have begun to focus on the state level due to the fact that the lion’s share of education funding comes from the states. To start, we are putting resources and energy into bringing about change in New Jersey, which has more than 27,000 Jewish day school students, the largest concentration of yeshivah students in the US outside of New York. Josh Pruzansky, our newly appointed regional director of public policy for New Jersey, will be directing our efforts there. Josh comes to the IPA with more than twenty years of advocacy, policy and Jewish communal experience.
No communal issue—none—is more crucial than making observant Jewish life affordable for families. The day school affordability challenge threatens the Jewish future.
Most recently, he spent the last several years working closely with a wide range of New Jersey elected officials.
To what kinds of legislative efforts do I refer? Currently in New Jersey, for example, we are working to galvanize support for the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), under which private donations would provide funds for students in an underperforming school district to attend charter schools, private schools, parochial schools or another nearby public school. Under the OSA, corporations would give money to “scholarship funds” and receive a 100 percent tax credit in return. Several other states already have OSA-like programs, including neighboring Pennsylvania, where it’s been a major help to day schools across the state.
We will also be hosting “Legislative Breakfasts” where we hope to introduce our community to legislators and familiarize them with our concerns. At these events, we need to convey a strong and potent message to our legislators: yeshivah tuition is the single most important issue that concerns our community.
While intensifying our efforts on the ground in the Garden State, we are also engaged in a range of initiatives, coordinated by our IPA Director of State Affairs Howard Beigelman, to support our schools; these include working to expand Pennsylvania’s scholarship tax credit program, creating a similar program in Maryland, and striking down Florida’s Blaine Amendment (a state constitutional provision restricting state aid to parochial schools) via a ballot initiative. (Many states have Blaine Amendments, and we will be working hard to strike them all down.)
We are also broadly supporting “backpacking,” the idea that school funding must follow the student. Were such education reform to take place in states across the country, the government could fund the secular studies of our yeshivot and day schools. Backpacking is a concept that needs to be emphasized and supported. It would radically change the economics of educating our children.
To succeed in the legislative arena, we need to form coalitions and fight in the trenches alongside other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. In addition to working with groups such as Avi Chai, Yeshiva University, the Sephardic Community Federation, Agudah and other Jewish organizations, we must collaborate with independent schools, Catholic Conferences in various states, as well as other religious and non-religious groups working toward education reform.
We must bear in mind that the legislative battle is not one isolated battle. It is an all-out campaign—a continental campaign to save our schools. It will entail many small battles and some big ones on both the state and federal levels. As in any revolution—political or social—we will experience some victories and some setbacks. We must remain focused on the goal and work to build strong relationships. We need to organize ourselves; we need to reach out to our representatives to ensure that they know us and our concerns. We need to make ourselves heard among those who have the power to make change.
There’s one catch: Legislators know their constituents. They know who is registered to vote and who actually takes the time to vote. Many within our community are not even registered to vote. At a recent OU event, New York City Councilman David Greenfield stated that typical voter turnout levels for the Orthodox community are 20 percent. That figure is embarrassingly low; what’s worse, our elected officials are well aware of it. A reporter for an Orthodox Jewish newspaper once asked Karl Rove why President George W. Bush wouldn’t be visiting Brooklyn on a campaign stop. His response: Orthodox Jews don’t vote. How can we expect our legislators to listen to us if we are apathetic? If we want our elected officials to care about our issues, and specifically about the escalating cost of yeshivah tuitions, we need to become active and engaged.
In the coming months, the OU will be working to significantly increase voter registration in our community. We will be working through schools and shuls to encourage this. In the short term, this is particularly important in New Jersey, as this November the entire State Legislature is up for election, and in New York City, where there will be a special election in September to fill a vacant congressional seat in a district that has a very significant Orthodox population.
There is tremendous strength in unity; the unions know it; the lobbyists know it; certainly the legislators know it. The question is: why don’t we in the Orthodox community know it? There are some 500,000 Orthodox Jews in New York State and more than an estimated 110,000 in New Jersey; if we organize ourselves effectively, community by community, there’s no telling what we can achieve for our schools, for our communities and for our children.
The Orthodox Union is now offering Challenge Grants for innovative and replicable solutions that address day school affordability. For more details about the OU Challenge Grants, requirements, application process and application form, please visit: OU Day School Affordability Grants