In the first school I taught there was a sign in the library: Education is expensive, but Ignorance costs even more. The cost of a Jewish education has far outpaced inflation. Statistics are easy to manipulate (the textbook for my statistics course was titled, “How to Lie with Statistics”) yet they nonetheless reveal quite a bit. Tuition in 1968 in the day school I went to was approximately $500 a year. Adjusted for inflation, that would equal somewhere between $3200 and $5000 in 2009 dollars, approximately one third of today’s tuition. From a different perspective, in 1968 the fourth fifth of the population earned an average of $10,700; their per child day school tuition would have represented 5% of their annual pre-tax income. In 2009 that same fifth earned $76,000; their per child day school tuition represents between 12% and 15% of their pre-tax income. And that is for only one child.
To be fair, nobody is getting rich in day schools. The day school I went to was behind in paying their teachers – the school only finished paying them after it closed its doors and sold the property it was sitting on (first base in the schoolyard is now a large Judaica shop). Today’s day school teachers are often better trained than those of yesteryear, today’s schools provide more sophisticated and rich educational offerings, parental demands of schools are greater than they once were, schools provide a host of additional services for students with learning differences at both ends of the spectrum, and teachers are being paid – generally on time – salaries which are more respectable (even though usually still far below the average salaries in the communities in which they work).
For many Jewish families there is simply no alternative to day schools. A meaningful, comprehensive Jewish education is non-negotiable, regardless of the toll it takes on family finances. But it is not just those families for whom the issue presses. There are many families from across the denominational spectrum for whom day school education is desirable, but not a sine qua non. They may choose other options if the financial burden is too great.
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that the immersion experience of the day school is irreplaceable for Jewish identity and commitment. As Yitz Greenberg writes in The Forward (Dec 2, 2009):
I, too, wish there were a cheap, effective alternative to day schools – but there is not. … only day schools offer the tools to make a mature embrace of Judaism plausible for many of our young people. … a day school education makes its recipients much more likely than their peers who do not receive this form of education to choose to be active members of the Jewish people, committed to Jewish marriage and family life.
And Jack Wertheimer’s recent study revealed that 40% of Jewish leaders (only 10% of whom are Orthodox) have received a day school education.
The challenge is not one of select, committed families, but one confronting the entire community, threatening its future. And the problem is not likely to fade away as the economy recovers.
In this issue we explore a range of perspectives and creative approaches dealing with this challenge. Jonathan Woocher, Jonathan Krasner, and Yossi Prager present overviews of the past, present, and possible future of Jewish education in North America. Our Applications section features some creative initiatives. Harry Bloom presents research on the impact of proper Board functioning, and a team from PEJE highlights their own initiative to help schools become more financially viable.
Florida’s Ben-Gamla charter school has received much attention. Nathan Diament surveys the legal discussion on church-state issues, Linda Schaffzin reports on her visit to Ben-Gamla, and Marc Baker, a day school principal, shares a refreshing perspective on whether the day school community should be fearful or embracing of charter schools. Online, public charter schools have been growing in popularity, and only recently has there been interest in whether these can play a role in reducing day school costs. My colleague at The Lookstein Center, Chana German, and I present some research we did into online charters, and Chaim Tropper reports on his small yeshiva in California that is already using an online charter school to provide a general studies education. Rounding out the creative ideas, Marion Gribetz and Billy Mencow suggest that it may be time to reinvigorate and reinvent the Hebrew school, and one group of parents in Florida decide to create a cooperative school with express mission of keeping tuition to half of conventional day schools.
In our Features, Levi Cooper shares a fascinating document of an early 19th century plan to deal with educational expenses. Finally, Chip Edelsberg paints a picture of leadership in Jewish day schools. It is likely that the landscape of Jewish education will change dramatically in the next quarter century. It is up to us to imagine what that landscape will look like, and to help make that imagination into an affordable, viable, vibrant reality.