CHICAGO (JTA) — In response to the recent pledge by Jewish Federations of North America Chairman Michael Siegal to raise $1 billion to support tuition-free Jewish preschool, some have dismissed the idea as just another pie-in-the-sky fix to the continuity problem. I disagree.
First, attending preschools (as well as day camps and overnight camps) are all normative experiences for American children, no matter their religion. Sending their children to preschool is what American parents do; that’s why nearly 100 percent of Jewish children attend preschool.
Of those children, about 30 percent attend Jewish preschool. Were Jewish preschool free or significantly subsidized, it seems reasonable to expect that attendance at Jewish preschool would rise as high as 70percent or more, depending on the level of subsidy.
Especially in light of the findings from the recent Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews, it seems imperative that we recognize the fact that American Jewish behaviors reflect normative American behaviors. In that vein, our challenge is not so much to change Jewish behavior — a herculean task, if not impossible — but to leverage that behavior by introducing significant Jewish content into normative practices like preschool.
Second, given the consensus about the importance of preschool to starting youngsters and their families on their Jewish journeys, let’s be clear about what is and is not viable to propose. Advocates like me who wish to subsidize Jewish preschool are not proposing free tuition for every Jewish child for years. That simply would be unaffordable and unsustainable.
Rather, we propose providing a substantial gift voucher to families to help offset the cost of participation — something my federation colleagues in Chicago, Palm Beach County, Fla., and Western Massachusetts have been doing for a number of years through the Right Start program.
The Right Start voucher — a maximum of $2,000 with no means test — applies to tuition for a family’s first child to attend any participating preschool. The amount of subsidy depends on how many days a week the child attends ($2,000 for five days a week; proportionately less for fewer days).
In Chicago, Right Start helped increase the percentage of Jewish children attending Jewish preschools from 30 to 40 percent in just a few years. Imagine if the full cost were paid for the first child in the family. No doubt the number enrolled would rise dramatically.
How can we make that happen throughout the United States?
One strategy would be to establish a large national fund to match local community contributions. If the full cost of five-day enrollment were, say, $7,000, the national fund would match the local community’s $3,500 gift to the parent. By requiring the local community to pay half the cost, we would ensure long-term financial sustainability.
Third, some have expressed concern about program quality. In that regard, I advise caution. While the national federation system should have the capacity to offer a model and mechanism for subsidizing tuition for Jewish preschool, it should not attempt to meddle in local program curriculum, teaching standards or other operational areas. To do so would be a recipe for disaster for reasons beyond the scope of this Op-Ed.
In Chicago’s experience, the Jewish preschool marketplace has responded admirably to parental needs and concerns regarding quality. The best evidence is that parents are returning the subsidized child to Jewish preschool after the first year, when the subsidy no longer applies. Further, 89 percent of parents report an excellent overall experience with their preschool choice.
Were Jewish preschool enrollments to double or triple in the next decade, the competition among Jewish preschool providers should result in enhanced quality. In addition, unlike other Jewish activities that expand with expanding deficits, Jewish preschools generally operate without deficits and often show profit.
Moreover, if our goal is to engage families in Jewish life, subsidized preschool is a smart investment.
In Chicago, 85 percent of parents said that having a child attend a Jewish early childhood education program increased their connection to the Jewish community, their motivation to enhance their Jewish practice and their involvement with Jewish organizations. Two-thirds said sending their children to Jewish preschool has influenced their decision to celebrate Shabbat more often or in a different way. Following preschool, 87 percent of parents said they plan to send their children to Hebrew school or Jewish day school, and 43 percent said they would send them to Jewish camp.
By floating the concept of universal Jewish preschool, Siegal and Jewish Federations of North America CEO Jerry Silverman reinforced an important concept in the national imagination — that early Jewish engagement leads to more Jewish engagement.
I’ll end where I began. Preschool is a normal activity in the United States. Bringing Jewish preschool costs below market costs of other preschools or making it just free for the first child in a family will spike enrollment. Also note that though 3-and 4-year olds are very precious, Jewish preschool is often more about influencing the young Jewish parents who are the ones who make other Jewish choices for themselves and their children.
Let’s help parents make the right choice and give their children a Right Start by subsidizing or making free Jewish preschool available right now. Doing so is not pie-in-the-sky.
(Steven B. Nasatir is president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.)