With Eye on Spiraling Education Costs, OU Announces Participation in Teach Rally

20 Jan 2006

The Orthodox Union today announced a two-part response to address the problem of the soaring cost of yeshiva/day school tuition in the United States and Canada. One aspect involves New York State; the other involves all of North America.

OU officials declared that the organization will participate “with great enthusiasm” in the large February 14 rally in Albany planned by the new non-sectarian coalition, Teach NYS (New York State), at which hundreds of buses will bring parents, educators and students who will call for making certain educational expenses for all school children across New York a direct credit on New York State taxes. This would include tutoring and test preparation expenses for public schools, as well as a portion of non-public school tuition.

The OU believes that this will be a particularly auspicious time to gather; the rally will be addressed by New York Governor George Pataki and state legislators who have proposed the enactment of such tax credits.

The OU simultaneously announced a North American-wide Tuition Initiative to address the yeshiva/day school tuition situation in the United States and Canada.

Both announcements were made by OU President Stephen J. Savitsky and OU Senior Vice President Elliot Gibber. Mr. Gibber is Chair of the OU Tuition Initiative and also Co-Chair of Teach New York State. The OU’s actions are in response to one of the most profound problems confronting Jewish life today, with its particular impact on the Orthodox community.

Jewish education is viewed in all aspects of the larger Jewish community as the best guarantee of Jewish continuity and of stemming the already considerable Jewish losses to assimilation and intermarriage. Nevertheless, with the annual Jewish day school tuition amounting to $11,000 per child and higher, depending on the grade level, some families are paying tuition bills higher than their mortgages. The Orthodox community is most heavily impacted, given its commitment to yeshiva education.

Enthusiasm for the Rally:

“With great enthusiasm, we will join what is expected to be thousands of parents, educators and students – Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant alike – who will make it clear to the legislature and governor that education tax credits are a smart investment in the next generation,” Mr. Savitsky and Mr. Gibber declared in a statement. “The time for an organization like Teach NYS has arrived, and we are delighted to be part of this effort.”

The OU is mobilizing its member synagogues as well as Orthodox yeshivas in New York State to charter buses to attend the rally. “We encourage everyone in the Orthodox community to go to Albany on February 14 for the kind of rally that will open eyes, will open ears, and will advance one of our most significant priorities – tuition relief – before New York’s lawmakers,” Mr. Savitsky and Mr. Gibber urged.


The National Response:

The OU leaders emphasized, however, that although the rally is in New York, the issue stretches across North America, wherever Jewish parents pay yeshiva/day school tuition. That is where the new OU Tuition Initiative comes in to play.

“The time has come to alleviate this major concern of Jewish parents by finding manageable solutions,” declared Mr. Savitsky. “Jewish families are struggling mightily to meet the often astronomical costs of educating their children. In the Orthodox community it is inconceivable not to send your children to Jewish schools, but in many cases the costs severely impact family life and financial security. At the OU, we want to come to grips with this distress and propose responses.”

Developing the Tuition Initiative:

The Tuition Initiative was developed at a recent session chaired by Mr. Gibber that included Jewish leaders from the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Orthodox communities, the academic and political worlds, and OU senior leadership and staff. “At that meeting,” explained OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, “we outlined important strategies for dealing with the education and tuition crisis. We have formed subcommittees on the key elements to give community leadership an opportunity to participate in all of the areas we have earmarked for this comprehensive tuition initiative.”

OU leaders also declared that they would be interested in being part of a coalition or partnership with other Jewish groups working on behalf of tuition relief, just as the OU is part of the Teach NYS effort. “We are willing to work with like-minded groups in spreading our message throughout the community and in developing responses,” Mr. Savitsky said.

He made it clear that the impact will be felt long-term rather than overnight, although some quicker successes may be expected. “You don’t solve this kind of problem with a magic wand,” Mr. Savitsky said. “We want to put in place a mindset not only among parents, but in the lay and professional leadership of yeshivot and day schools, that changes will come, that the never-ending cycle of increasing tuition bills will be halted, and that Jewish education will not be priced out of the market.”

The Plan:

“This involves changes in the management structure of the schools; in developing increased fund-raising skills; in gaining the ability to access government funds on federal, state and local levels; in developing partnerships throughout the community – in other words, in making major changes from the way things are done now,” he explained. “And if these changes can begin to hold the line on tuition increases as soon as possible, then there will be tangible short-term gains while the long-term strategies are being developed.”

The OU began its response to the situation in the Fall 2005 issue of its magazine Jewish Action, with the cover story package, “The Tuition Squeeze: Paying the Price of Jewish Education.” The issue included a variety of approaches to the problem by educators, foundation executives and experts on government relations, who discussed financing, vouchers (both those provided by government and those provided privately), fundraising, and endowment programs on behalf of Jewish education. The issue also included an article by parents in a New York suburb who devised a plan to have the local public school district finance the local yeshiva’s secular studies department.

The Details:

The OU now continues that response, building on the Jewish Action coverage, with its three-pronged Tuition Initiative. It proposes:

· Increased mobilization of Orthodox Union leadership and member synagogues to advocate for constitutionally permissible government resources that would address the high costs of Jewish education. These resources will include help already available in some states, including tuition tax credits, reimbursement for teacher training, support for special education, transportation, and the sharing of school facilities.

· Making the case to federations and foundations for placing Jewish education higher on their agenda. “It is crucial that the Jewish community place a greater priority on Jewish education and increase its support for it,” said Mr. Gibber. “Ensuring Jewish continuity is not merely a slogan or catchphrase – it should be our number one concern as borne out by recent Jewish population surveys. We want to make sure that future surveys will reflect lower rates of assimilation and intermarriage.”

· Increasing cooperation and developing working relationships with other organizations and individuals who have already made Jewish education a prime focus of their activities. The OU wants to engage important philanthropists in a wider effort to create endowments that would ensure that future generations of young Jewish children will be able to attend day schools without breaking their parents. “Making Jewish education affordable for all Jews should be first on our list of tzedakot (charitable giving opportunities),” explained Rabbi Weinreb. “Enlisting major contributors to ensure the longevity and vitality of our yeshivot and day schools will be part of our long-term strategy.”

The Orthodox Union’s newly constituted Young Leadership Cabinet — a group of highly educated men and women who are being groomed for OU senior leadership positions in the years to come – is playing an important role in this effort by preparing a study that will help yeshivot and day schools better manage their funds with the goal of eventually being able to ease the burden on families. The Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs is developing legislative proposals and reaching out to elected officials and coalition partners in several key states around the nation.

The Tuition Initiative is also working to define the roles of parents and grandparents with an eye toward increasing community and intergenerational responsibility. “While diverse segments of the Jewish community will be called on to help us develop the Initiative, it is clear that the solution to this urgent problem is not going to come from any one area. We also know that what has taken years to get this stage will also take time to solve,” said Mr. Gibber. “We hope that what is now becoming increasingly difficult for young parents to cope with will be significantly eased by our findings, our recommendations, and our actions.”