Day School Sustainability: A Potential Blueprint

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02 Aug 2011

The following remarks were delivered at the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future ChampionsGate Leadership Conference. The views expressed herein are personal opinions and are not being stated in representation of the Orthodox Union or its agencies.

Thank you for the privilege of addressing this group. I hope over the next few minutes to share my perspective on the profound challenges facing Day School education and actions we can take to meet them. I hope when I’m finished, you will be deeply uncomfortable with the status quo and deeply committed to change it.

It is undoubtedly the case that, with few exceptions, you have all sent your children to Day Schools. The priority of Jewish education has been self evident – its viability presumed. It’s been the point of departure for shaping Jewish identity, knowledge, values and spirituality. It’s been a bedrock of modern orthodox communal life for decades. And sociologically, it’s the factor that most strongly correlates to Jewish continuity and communal leadership.

But after 50 years of upward trajectory, of greater quality, access and impact, the momentum is turning negative. I work closely with a network of schools in New Jersey educating over 4,000 children and speak with communities across the U.S. Here’s what I see and hear. On the positive side, we have made enormous progress building high quality schools. We have attracted talented educators and paid them at a respectable level.

And we’ve done this at a cost comparable to or below public education. But in today’s economic reality, 50% of families cannot afford Day School education. Schools are being crushed by the scholarship burden. Parents are at wits’ end and families are increasingly opting out.

The story is similar across the country and even more devastating in non-orthodox circles. To be clear, this is not a transient phenomenon – it has been building systemically for many years. As Yossi Prager, head of the Avi Chai Foundation, commented recently, the social contract has been broken.

Many this weekend have referenced a “new normal”. From my vantage point, I don’t see anything normal at all. I see a burning platform. I see the birthright of every Jewish child in serious jeopardy. And I have to say, I see a response, or lack thereof, from the broader community that is incomprehensibly weak, diffused and completely inadequate. Are you feeling uncomfortable yet?

Championsgate is a unique forum for serious introspection on issues of import to our future. In that spirit, I challenge this group of leaders to embark on a bold, transformative effort. Our goal should be to create and implement a National Blueprint for Day School Sustainability that includes a coherent, multi-faceted plan and the full commitment of our collective human and financial resources.

Let’s talk about what the blueprint looks like in practical terms. The good news, and I’m sure you’re ready for some by now, is that there are “green shoots” of solutions emerging across the country. Our work through JEFG is one such microcosm of change and I know others here are similarly engaged. Several national institutions are also stepping forward to tackle this challenge, including the Avi Chai Foundation, PEJE, Federation and the Institute for University – School Partnership at YU. All of these organizations are doing great work, but they need to be integrated and turbo-charged.

The organic responses to date are indicative and instructive in terms of the 3 core elements we must pursue:

#1 – Reset Communal Priorities
#2 – Reinvent the Funding Model
#3 – Re-imagine the product

These are not just slogans – there is activity around each and growing evidence of impact. Let me briefly touch on them.

#1 – Reset Communal Priorities. Everything begins with a fundamental reset of priorities. A recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly underscored the importance of focus in effective strategy. We are woefully unfocused at a communal level. Our efforts are diluted and fragmented. We probably have 30-50 outside organizations visit our communities to raise money each year. We probably direct 75% of our charitable giving externally – exactly the inverse of what is halachically prescribed.

Jewish education must be the #1 communal priority. Lay, Rabbinic and Institutional leaders must embrace this agenda and galvanize their communities to make it happen.

#2 – Reinvent the Funding Model. The bottom line here is that we must migrate from a user-fee to a communal support model. Schools must be viewed as communal institutions and each community member must contribute financially to their sustainability. How about creating an ongoing national Day School campaign with the expectation that every community member will contribute to fund scholarships? How about building endowments in our schools to fuel educational innovation and enable middle income affordability? And what about serious political action to drive policies that create new funding pools?

# 3 – We need to re-imagine our product. I am not an educator, but many in this audience are. Our schools need to drive fresh curricular approaches – especially in Limudei Kodesh. They need to explore how to nurture spirituality and inculcate values in the 21st century. They need to embrace technology, leverage opportunities for shared services and systematically drive best practices. The Institute at YU is doing pioneering work in this area which we have helped pilot, but much, much more must be done.

Finally, we need to encourage the responsible development of alternate models that are unlikely to emerge from current schools and can provide fundamentally different options for our families.

Let me close by referencing a recent article on the tuition crisis: “Deborah is a young mother who is paying $16,000 for one of her children to attend a Jewish Day School. She feels ‘priced out’ of her religion. However, she’s determined to figure out this problem because she loves Judaism, she is spiritually connected to every facet of her modern orthodox lifestyle, and she should not have to feel this way about costs….

Recently, the Shalom Academy (a Hebrew charter school) was approved…. Some Jewish day school parents have decided that a Hebrew language and culture education (despite it not being a Jewish education) is a great secondary option. Others are outraged that their friends would opt for a ‘non-Jewish’ education, and despite struggling with tuition themselves, they are keeping their kids in yeshiva….”

For her part, Deborah will be sending her older child to Shalom Academy come September. “I’m tired of complaining,” she says, “Hopefully, this will make all the difference.”

I am embarrassed to have this occur in my community. As communal leaders, I believe we all should be embarrassed, alarmed and completely dissatisfied by the current state of affairs. The challenge facing Deborah, and thousands like her across the U.S., is larger than any individual school’s – or even a network of schools’ – ability to solve. But together we can create the Blueprint for Sustainability that ensures a dynamic, healthy, educational base for our communities’ future. We have the broad outlines of the Blueprint – – Reset Communal Priorities, Reinvent the Funding Model, Re-Imagine the Product. We now have proven tools. What we need is singular focus, bold vision, collective will and continuous commitment. We can’t do 10 things well – – we need to do the 1-2 highest priorities brilliantly. The platform is burning. I hope by Championsgate 2012 we’re on much more solid ground.

For additional information on JEFG (Jewish Education for Generations), please visit: NNJKIDS Communal Scholarship Fund.

Mr. Moed is an active lay leader in areas related to Jewish education. He is currently President of Jewish Education for Generations – a unique consortium of Day Schools and community institutions developing innovative approaches to ensure the sustainability of quality Jewish education in northern New Jersey.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.