Op-Ed: Sustaining a day school education, financially and morally

Aryeh Klapper ()

Aryeh Klapper ()

BOSTON (JTA) — There is a lot of hand-wringing these days about whether the rising costs of Jewish day schools are sustainable.The discussion has been about money, but this misses the point: The largest costs of day school tuition are not financial but moral, and the key to solving the financial dilemma is to address the moral problem.

What are the moral costs? Imagine that someone proposes a new Jewish practice that would have these outcomes:

* Parents take second jobs, or work longer hours, that deprive them of almost all weekday contact with their children and leave them too exhausted to make Shabbat meaningful.

* Nearly half of households are transformed for years from community contributors to charity recipients.

* Children aspiring to intellectual, creative or service work, such as teaching (especially Torah) or other helping professions, are told that these are not options because they will not produce enough money to sustain a committed Jewish lifestyle.

* Families choose to have fewer children for purely economic reasons.

We would consider such a practice stunningly irresponsible. Yet these are real-life consequences of current day school tuition, even as day school education is increasingly seen as vital in successful Jewish child-rearing.

Should we therefore undo commitment to broad-based day school education? No; we can address the moral issues and, in doing so, the financial ones as well.

Many of the moral challenges come not from the amount that families must pay but from the system that determines the amount. Under the current financial aid system, families have no guarantee of how they will be affected by tuition hikes or whether the school will take account of a job loss or extra income from a second job. Unable to plan and chronically dependent on the decisions of others, they are deprived of economic dignity.

Furthermore, financial aid applications require families to state their expenses in often humiliating detail, so that an anonymous committee can sit in judgment of their priorities. A family that eats pasta all month so it can go to a movie risks an aid cut because it spends on entertainment.

Yes, the price of poverty is often loss of privacy and dignity. But these are evils; they must be minimized. The current system maximizes these evils by forcing otherwise self-supporting, even wealthy families to apply for charity because “full tuition” is unaffordable even for many households earning more than $200,000 per year.

A model like that of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston offers great potential. Put simply, here’s how it might work: Basic tuition is a fixed percentage of gross income set at approximately the percentage that the current financial aid process tends to charge middle-income families. High-income families can choose to pay a fixed amount, approximately what is now called “full tuition,” in order to lower their tuition, and families unable to pay the fixed percentage could, as now, apply for financial aid.

This model corrects many of the current system’s moral deficiencies:

* It makes the tuition-setting process transparent and predictable for many more families.

* It moves many middle-class families off the charity rolls and minimizes the schools’ intrusion into their affairs.

* It defines day school education as a public good to be communally supported instead of an individual good privately purchased.

* It makes clear that the rich, even when they pay the maximum tuition, are assessed a lower percentage of their income than the middle class.

What impact will this model have on the financial bottom line of schools? At the simplest level, none; the percentage of income required as tuition can be set so as to produce approximately the revenues that schools receive now. But more thoughtfully, it offers exciting possibilities for increasing revenues, enrollment and fiscal accountability. Here are just a few of them:

* Dan Perla  of the Avi Chai Foundation argues cogently that setting school payments as a percentage of income during a recession is an excellent investment, as when times improve, revenues will rise much faster than costs.

* Families who now avoid day school because of the uncertainties and indignities of the financial aid process may now enroll.

* Wealthier families may donate significantly more when they see their tuition payments as reflecting a discount.

* Administrators will have a much clearer sense of revenues, and the entire school community will be more accountable for designing the school so that it remains within the financial ambit of its constituency.

* The fiction of a “financial aid budget” that can be “used up” leads many schools to forego revenues that would be almost pure net profit. Students who pay a significant portion of gross family income as tuition generally contribute more than the marginal cost of their education.

This new model requires elaboration and customization, but it can redirect the community’s conversation and efforts toward a model of day school financing that is financially and morally sustainable.

(Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership and teaches rabbinic literature at Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, Mass.)

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