Educating Our Children: Day Schools Face Funding Crisis Even As the Demand Flourishes

Day schools, heralded by many in the Jewish community as the best antidote to assimilation, are having trouble paying their bills.

The problem is, the predominant sources of their income — parents — are having even more trouble keeping up with rising tuitions.

“The bottom line is that the system will go bankrupt in the next decade unless we figure out a way to pay for families that can’t afford it,” said George Hanus, president of Chicago’s Ida Crown Jewish Academy.

As an unprecedented number of new Jewish day schools open their doors this month — 10 new high schools alone — many of the 600 day schools already in business are struggling to make ends meet.

A new study on the financing of Jewish day schools, authored by educational consultants Marvin Schick and Jeremy Dauber, has found what many already suspected: Day schools are seriously underfunded.

And annual tuitions — ranging from $2,000-$4,000 at some Orthodox yeshivas to well over $10,000 at community and movement-affiliated schools in many metropolitan areas — remain a barrier for many parents who would like their children to receive an intensive Jewish education, say experts in the field.

The irony is that the dual crisis in underfunding and high tuition comes as the demand for day-school education is on the rise.

According to educational sociologist Alvin Schiff, about 60,000 youths attended day schools in 1962, while 540,000 children went to supplementary religious schools.

In just over a generation, the number of children in day schools has tripled, to more than 180,000, while the number in supplementary schools has fallen by more than half to 260,000.

Despite the increasing demand, even more children would likely be in day-school classrooms if tuition were lower, said Schick, who is also president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, an Orthodox yeshiva in Staten Island, N.Y.

The problem of how to boost day school education and make it affordable is not a new one.

But it has taken on increasing urgency as research based on the 1990 National Jewish Population Study has underscored the fact that the stronger a child’s Jewish education, the more likely he or she is to grow into a strongly identified Jew.

Yet even as a 30-year-old debate continues about whether local federations are doing enough to support day schools, the schools are turning to alternative sources of funding — and have begun some new initiatives.

In Chicago, for example, an unusual coalition made up of the 14 day-school and yeshiva presidents in the area has sprung up in an effort to permanently address the ongoing financial squeeze.

The schools, which span the religious spectrum, are calling the endeavor the National Jewish Day School Scholarship Committee. Their first step is to organize and host a Sept. 21 meeting, which is expected to draw day school presidents and other interested parties from around the country.

The Chicago schools’ network already had to secure a $2.5 million loan guarantee from the Chicago Jewish federation so that they could stay afloat.

The amount of money budgeted by federations for Jewish education in general has not substantially increased in decades.

Jewish federations are the central vehicle for collecting money to fund the needs of Jews — locally, nationally and overseas.

In 1968, Jewish students confronted national Jewish leaders at the annual gathering of the Council of Jewish Federations, demanding more money for Jewish education.

In a speech at that gathering, the activist Leonard Fein said: “The financial facts are plain: Jewish federations today provide about 9 percent of [their] support for Jewish education in this country, and that investment represents better than 20 percent of all the domestic expenditures of federations.”

A 1994 study by JESNA: Jewish Education Service of North America, which has close ties to the Jewish federation system, found similar results: Of the money federations allocate for local needs, 24 percent is dedicated to Jewish education. About half of that goes to day schools, according to JESNA.

Schick’s study says that while 40 percent of the 154 day schools surveyed reported an increase in federation funding over the past five years when measured in absolute dollars, 67 percent of respondents said the allocation had decreased in terms of a percentage of the schools’ budgets.

In Chicago, for example, the federation spends a higher percentage of its local allocations on day schools than the national average — 18 percent rather than 12 percent — for a total in 1997-98 of just under $2.5 million. But that represents an increase of just under 1 percent over last year, the same amount by which the entire budget increased.

At the same time, schools’ expenses have risen much faster.

The overwhelming majority of a school’s budget — some 80 to 85 percent — is spent on staff salaries and benefits, even as recent surveys show that Jewish school educators are paid relatively low wages, experts say.

“We must bring this issue to the national agenda,” said Hanus, a founder of the new initiative in Chicago.

“There has been a lot of handwringing, but there have not been any bold, innovative steps which everybody has endorsed,” Hanus added.

“You can get money to fund a Jewish community center, a hospital and to rescue Jews from Russia, but talk about educating our children is not seen as sexy.”

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder of the National Jewish Outreach Program and a longtime proponent of day school education, agreed.

“It’s criminal that the American Jewish community doesn’t have a mega-fund guaranteeing a Jewish education for every kid in the country,” said Buchwald.

Buchwald was part of an 80-member blue-ribbon Continuity Commission convened by CJF in 1993 with the mandate to find ways to address the twin crises of assimilation and intermarriage.

After three years of work, the commission came up with a list of suggested pro- continuity priorities, including day-school education.

But no action was taken.

Members of the commission, including its director, Jonathan Woocher, said the need for consensus precluded the commission from endorsing a single approach.

“I’m a little disappointed that we weren’t able to do more with it,” said Woocher, executive vice president of JESNA. “The good news is that the work” of Jewish education “is clearly continuing at an even more substantial pace now.”

Part of the commission’s debate, which continues today, was over which of many educational priorities to endorse. The debate has often centered on formal – - day-school and supplementary synagogue schools — versus informal education such as family education, youth groups and camps.

Today each education-earmarked dollar has more programs competing for it than in earlier years, experts say.

And for their part, federation leaders are faced with many competing demands for dollars.

Steven Nasatir, the executive vice president at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, responded passionately to the idea that day schools should get funding taken from other needs.

“Do we take it from care of the aged? Care of the hungry in Chicago or in Russia? Do you take it from community centers, which is an informal educational experience which touches a lot of people, though it’s not intensive?”

“Playing take away won’t happen” in this federation, Nasatir said. “A better thing is to say, `How do we do more?’”

Indeed, Hanus, Nasatir and others agree that the future of day school funding lies in alternative sources of funding — particularly endowments.

The Chicago federation has promised the new day school coalition that it would host and administer such an endowment, which would raise a significant amount of money and pay for expenses primarily from the interest earned by the capital.

Though the idea is still in the planning stage, Hanus said he hopes to raise $50 million over the next seven years, thereby providing enough scholarship money for any local child seeking a Jewish education.

Some, however, wonder whether the money will be forthcoming.

“Continuity is a buzzword and nobody really cares about it,” said Rabbi Samuel Joseph, professor of Jewish education at the Cincinnati campus of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College.

“It doesn’t stir the heart of the Jewish community. Except for a couple of people, has anyone put their money where their pro-educational mouth is?”

The problem for parents struggling to send their children to day school is that schools generally offer limited amounts of financial aid.

They often provide relatively small dollar amounts to a high percentage of students — and only token discounts for families who have two, three or more children in the school at the same time.

“We all know there are people who aren’t taking advantage of this kind of education because they can’t afford to,” said Jane Eisner, a journalist in Philadelphia who sits on the board of the Perelman Schechter Day School in Wynnewood, Pa., where two of her three daughters are enrolled.

Annual tuition at the Schechter school was about $4,000 when her first daughter started eight years ago and is now $8,275.

The majority of new funding initiatives in formal Jewish education is coming from a handful of private families and foundations.

But such efforts are rare and, until now, have only lasted a few years until the donors decided to move their money to a different project, experts say.

Still, the alternative sources are making a difference, as the following examples illustrate:

At one Philadelphia-area Conservative synagogue, a member has anonymously donated $75,000 in each of the last two years to help synagogue members send their children to the area’s Akiba Hebrew Academy.

Of the 85 children from the congregation’s 750 member families attending Akiba, said Rabbi Neil Cooper of Congregation Beth El/Beth Hillel, 50 have received about $1,500 in tuition subsidies each year, which are paid directly to the school.

“The whole program was started because there were people who needed that extra push,” said Cooper, whose three children attend Akiba.

In Seattle, the Samis Foundation is subsidizing tuition at the local Orthodox Jewish high school, lowering the annual cost for each student from $7,000 to $3,000.

Enrollment has shot up by about 20 percent, from 59 to 68 students, since the subsidy began a year ago.

Two years ago, when a Queens, N.Y., school serving 1,000 immigrant children from the Bukharan region of the former Soviet Union closed its doors for lack of funds, 40 percent of the students’ families could not afford tuition at other yeshivas and were ready to send them to public school.

But the rabbis of the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, community took action.

They created a special fund, Nechamas Yisrael, and asked every member of their community to contribute at least $36 a year.

Since then, Nechamas Yisrael has paid the tuitions for nearly 2,000 children at yeshivas in Brooklyn and Queens.

Jane Strauss of Minneapolis wishes there was a similar program for non-haredi Jews in her city.

Strauss’ four children, ranging in age from 8 to 14, attend the Chabad Academy of Minnesota not because the education meshes with their family’s religious philosophy, which she describes as “Conservadox,” but because she pays a total annual tuition bill of about $7,800.

The other day schools in the Minneapolis area charge between $6,000 and $7,000 per child, and the largest scholarships available would cover only about 10 percent of the bill, Strauss said.

A divorced social service provider, Strauss is angry that she has to struggle so hard to give her kids a solid Jewish education.

“The Jewish community,” she said, “has virtually disowned those of us of moderate income.”

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