Why Does Tuition Cost So Much? The Million Dollar Question

hero image

This article first appeared August, 10, 2011 on Text & Texture and has been reprinted with author’s consent.

Why does it cost so much to educate a Jewish child?[1]

The single largest element of any school budget is compensation. Salaries and fringe benefits eat up 75-80%, and sometimes more, of most school budgets. Reduce that line item and the cost of education falls. The only problem is that it’s not so easy to do.

Salaries are set by the market and maintaining a top quality staff, which is now seen, more than any other factor, as the surest way to student success (more than class size, more than equipment, more than anything else), is very costly, because other schools will offer what might be considered outrageous sums to lure those staff members away. Could a school let its superstars go to other institutions? Certainly. But then it would not be the same school, and might not see the same success. And then parents will feel the education is not up to their expected standard and will go elsewhere. And thus starts a vicious downward spiral.

The need for excellent teachers also argues against going into the nearest kollel and pulling the first 3 guys off the bench. We want teachers who want to teach, not who need a job and have no marketable skills so they go into teaching, which they often can’t do either. That was the mistake of Jewish education years ago; we can not and must not repeat it. But people who choose to go into teaching and who will be really qualified are also probably qualified to go into many other professions. And they will not choose education if the compensation isn’t reasonable.

And while teacher excellence is the single most important factor in student achievement, it is not the only one. Class size does play an important role too. Will increasing class size from 18 to 27 cut staffing needs? Yes. Will it impact on instruction? Definitely. Will it be a significant change? That depends on the teacher and the students. If there is a critical mass of students with more than average needs, and a teacher with only slightly better than average skills, then one might see a dramatic change in instruction. Will parents still send their children to your school? Don’t bet your life savings on it.

There is another factor as well which militates against increasing class size. A school that separates genders might not have the student population to increase class sizes. In our school, that is an important factor. The way to reduce costs is to fill “empty” seats. Very few schools run at capacity. The closer a school approaches that number, the wider the pool of parents, the more stable the costs remain because increases are divided out over a larger parent body. (This one point, empty seats, can be the topic of other articles: the advent of unnecessary schools in certain geographic areas, and the allocation of scholarship funds.)

All of this does not mean a school must keep its entire staff every year. And in fact, most schools do see annual shifts. But for a school to maintain a basically consistent educational product, it must have faculty stability, which means that salaries will creep up inexorably.

There is a point, though, where the expectation of an annual increase is not reasonable. Some teachers, especially Limudei Kodesh teachers, are reaching that level. We have to realize that many parents do not earn six-figure salaries. Teachers, in my mind, should not either. Administrative salaries are another topic altogether, though even there unrealistic expectations of remuneration abound.

Another leading expense driver is “special education.” Forty years ago I had a classmate, Billy. Billy was one of those kids who would wander around the room, sometimes looking at other kids working, other times sticking his head out the window to look at the birds in the tree. Today, we educate Billy. And that costs a lot of money. At JEC we spend nearly $1.5 million, 12% of our budget, on “resource room” alone.

Forty years ago we didn’t have social workers in our school. We have 3 now, as well as other guidance staff. The world has gotten much more complex than when we were kids growing up. And our children are bombarded with influences 24 hours a day, many of which we are not even aware exist. We might have grown impervious to it but our children look at advertising and soak up cultural messages. Online and out in the world. It makes no difference. And if we delude ourselves into thinking for even one minute that we can build a safe ghetto for them, we are sadly mistaken. Look how many teenagers are at-risk in right wing communities. Or beyond at-risk and are already deep in trouble. And I mention right- wing communities only because they have a different approach to protecting their youth, and still it fails. The more center-of-the-road communities have the same problems. And that is why public school simply can not be an option. If having children in a protective, nurturing religious environment is not enough to safeguard them from influences we would rather not impact on their lives, how much more so the total free-for-all of public education. I’m not even talking about the quality of education; I’m talking about the socially-accepted behaviors, the talk, the sexuality, the culture. The fix to the day school system must come from within, not by dropping out.

“Nice” to haves and “Need” to haves:

This is a challenge every school faces. What do we consider necessary and what is an extra? Do we cut our sports teams or do we have an outlet where the non-academically inclined students can find an area in which to have satisfaction in school? It’s not an easy answer. Our institutional philosophy is that we want each student to feel good about coming to school. Sometimes, the only carrot is the basketball court, or the music room or the art studio. Can we cut those classes? Yes. Will it save us a lot of money? Not enough to significantly impact the bottom line. Will it make a percentage of our students miserable? Yes. Will they act out in class because they don’t have an outlet? Possibly yes. Cost-benefit analysis: which is worth more? We feel that a smooth running school with reasonably happy students is worth it. And so do those parents whose children fall into those groups, just as the parents with children with extra needs feel that all the resource facilities we have are not enough and we should increase that area of our offerings. As a parent told me recently, in assessing the tuition problem, everyone’s attitude is, “Everything in school is superfluous, unless my child needs it.”

Do we need computers in every classroom? Yes. Do they have to be the latest models? No. But a school does need to keep technologically up-to-date. Smart boards are not seen by many parents as a luxury anymore. A lot of spending, especially in technology, is driven by parental expectation. This is how they perceive the school to which they send their children should look. And we have to respond to those expectations. All of this equipment (in our school we have nearly 200 computers [in classrooms, offices, dedicated labs and rolling carts], a fully redundant network that connects two campuses [so if one campus’s server goes down we can piggy back on the other] which contains many pieces of equipment, VoIP [voice over IP – telephones through the computer network], 50 smart boards [with another 10-15 on the way via a donor]) really needs at least two full-time employees to manage. And whether you believe it or not, ours is not an extremely high-end set up. This is what we need to have in place to put internet access into each classroom.

There are limits, though. We will not offer deep-sea diving as an elective even if parents think it is crucial to their children’s survival in the business world. You have to learn how to work with sharks after all. But there are certainly reasonable expectations, especially ones we as a school were already considering, that have to be weighed very carefully. And during challenging financial times those expenditures are put off.

Are there some outings and excursions that can be dropped? Yes. But ask your children who have already graduated what they remember most from their years in school, and don’t be surprised if academics is not in the top 10. Informal education is a crucial addition to the toolkit of any school, but it too comes at a cost.

This does not means we should not look exceptionally closely at all costs. And it does not mean that many small savings don’t add up to big savings. All of this is true, and if all schools agreed to forego these types of activities there would be some savings. But parents often do not make the choice of where their high school age children go to school. The students do. And if one school offers trips and the other doesn’t, guess where the kids will go?

Which brings me to a very important point: competition.

Schools compete with each other. And if we do not offer the same activities as a competing school, we will lose students. And the savings would not have been significant enough to make a noticeable long-term difference. And with reduced student population comes increased tuition on the remaining families to cover the lost tuitions. And we’re back to our vicious downward spiral.

Schools in less Jewishly-dense populated area, while not fighting competition from other day schools, do nonetheless compete against independent schools and public schools. And even those families who are firmly committed to Jewish education still need their children in a nurturing Jewish environment, inside and outside of school. One could argue that this should be the purview of the shuls and not the schools. True enough, but it would only transfer the cost.

On administrators:

Much of the latest round of tuition crisis chatter has revolved around the perception of bloated academic administrative staffing in our schools. Where once upon a time one or two administrators could handle a school of 400 or more, we now see multiple layers of administrative personnel: deans, heads of school, principals, associate and assistant principals, coordinators of every type, division heads, etc. I will not lie and claim that every administrator in every school is needed. But there is more need than people would like to admit.

If a principal of a school of 400 children gave each child 5 minutes of consideration each week, whether in a face-to-face conversation, or a discussion with a teacher about the student, or reviewing test scores and report card grades, the total time over the course of that week would be 2000 minutes, or 33 hours and 20 minutes; basically, a full time job. Just giving each student only 5 minutes a week. Compound that with other administrative responsibilities, including talking to the parents of said children (and the expectation that an administrator respond within 10 minutes of a parental request), meeting with others in the school about unrelated, though equally pressing matters, and a modicum of professional development and it is not hard to see why at least two people are needed. Add to that recruitment responsibilities, board responsibilities, and bathroom and lunch breaks and suddenly there are more people involved.

The next piece of the administrative puzzle is a difficult one for parents to accept. If a school is structured so that Limudei Kodesh are all in the morning (as a way of showing the primacy of Torah in our lives) and General Studies are all in the afternoon (or vice versa), then it is only possible to offer either type of teacher a full-time job if he or she can cross-over the curricular divide. Most can not. So how can we attract top quality teachers for only a half-day’s work? For the general side of the ledger, we often find public school teachers and administrators who are looking to supplement their income. But for Kodesh that solution does not really exist. Yes, there are some shul rabbis looking to supplement their rabbinic salaries, more out of necessity than anything else. But not every shul rabbi makes a good classroom teacher. Nor is every shul rabbi interested in teaching 6th grade Navi, to boys or to girls.

So, in order to attract and keep top quality teachers, full-time jobs must be created for them. And from that necessity was born the coordinator. Not an administrator, but something beyond just the classroom instructor; more pay, but not at an administrator’s level. And hiring one person to do the myriad tasks of the coordinators won’t really be that much less expensive, plus it would not address the attraction and retention issue.

Does a school run better with levels of administrative oversight? If the administrators have clearly defined roles, and clear lines of communication, then a certain amount of direct administrative oversight of different areas of the school’s functions is certainly beneficial. However, when budgets are tight, as they are now, those mid-level jobs have to be redistributed and positions have to be eliminated.

And this opens a totally different area of school budgeting, and that is finding savings. But that really is beyond the scope of this already lengthy post, so I will have to leave it for another time if there is interest.

Rabbi Eliyahu D. Teitz is the Associate Dean of the Jewish Educational Center (JEC) in Elizabeth, NJ.

[1] I will occasionally bring real life examples from the school that I run, the Jewish Educational Center. No names or direct positions are mentioned, so no confidences have been breached.

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