Much ink has been spilled about the tuition crisis in North American Jewish day schools. However, because a key aspect of the crisis has received insufficient attention, an important part of the solution has largely been missed.
The problem is often framed solely in terms of the tuition rates that Jewish day schools set. Yet tuition rates are a direct reflection of the inevitably high cost of providing quality education, including the key programs and services necessary to ensure that students’ varied needs are met. While educational costs can and should be reviewed critically every year by professional and lay leadership, there are practical limits to how much can be cut. Faculty salaries represent over 80 percent of Jewish day school budgets. Cutting teacher pay across the board, or systematically hiring materially fewer teachers, as would be required for major budget reductions, are steps that most Jewish day schools are unprepared to take.
While there is broad agreement today that Jewish day schools must be more frugal than ever in their spending, the bottom line is that, when viewed through the lens of public-school budgets, few if any Jewish day schools spend excessively. For example, in our area, Westchester County, government data show that public school districts spend $25,000-$35,000 per student to provide a single-curriculum education. Most area Jewish day schools spend less per student than their public-school neighbors while providing a dual-curriculum education.
A significant but largely overlooked problem lies in Jewish day schools’ often-clumsy attempts to address the challenges faced by families that cannot afford to pay full tuition. Commendably, most if not all of the North American Jewish community long ago reached a consensus that no child would be turned away from Jewish day school for inability to pay. That principled approach was worthy of celebration, but the burdensome and invasive scholarship processes that accompanied it blunted the triumph. While day schools work hard to administer scholarship programs in a respectful way, the process can be embarrassing, and it almost always takes too long. Families generally have to wait until spring to find out their financial obligations for the upcoming school year, making advance financial planning difficult.
A better alternative is needed. We submit that scholarship processes can be streamlined, and vastly improved, by reducing tuition obligations when appropriate in a simple, fair and predictable way based on a family’s income, which can be verified with a single two-page tax form (Form 1040).
Implemented correctly, such a program will result in families receiving assistance similar to that available through traditional scholarship programs, but in a way that consistently reinforces a positive relationship between our families and our schools — all without reducing school revenue or sacrificing the quality of the educational product.
At Westchester Day School (WDS), which implemented the program in January, we are capping tuition as a percentage of adjusted gross income (AGI). The percentage ranges from 10 to 20 percent depending on income; for example, a family with an income of $150,000 is expected to spend up to 13 percent of its AGI on day school tuition; at $250,000 the cap is 16 percent; and at $350,000 the cap is 19 percent — all regardless of how many children the family enrolls in day school.
Our formula was the result of an intensive yearlong study. It is based largely on anonymized historical scholarship data demonstrating that, absent extenuating circumstances, most families are able and willing to pay these amounts. WDS families can now do so without submitting a scholarship application; they need only submit their Form 1040 to verify their income.
Another important and unique aspect of our program is our consideration of Jewish high school tuitions, since WDS is a pre-K to 8th school. Under our program, a family is expected to pay WDS only WDS’ pro-rata share of the family’s income-based tuition cap. If the family’s default obligation to WDS is $50,000 and its obligation to a Jewish high school is $25,000, WDS merely asks that the family pay 50/75 (or two-thirds) of its income-based capped tuition amount to WDS, with the remainder presumptively earmarked for high school tuition.
WDS designed and built a user-friendly tuition calculator for its website allowing parents to plug in their AGI, the grades in which their children will be enrolled at WDS and any Jewish high schools their older children will attend, to determine their tuition obligation to WDS.
WDS’ current income-based system does have one self-imposed limitation. The available discount is capped at 40 percent as a compromise between the competing values of streamlining the process for as many families as possible and recognizing that adjusted gross income is not always the exclusive factor in determining what a family can reasonably afford. Discounts larger than 40 percent remain available through the traditional scholarship process. We predict that almost half of families currently receiving scholarships will convert to the new system this year, but we are aiming higher over the long term and we expect to fine-tune the details of the system over time to achieve even better results for both families and WDS.
While families will always have to make sacrifices for Jewish education, WDS believes that adopting an income-based formula reflecting the reality of a school’s demographic, as WDS did, will lead to broad agreement that the percentages are fair and will keep the inevitable sacrifices within limits that all can agree are reasonable. Such programs will thereby strengthen the trustful partnership that is so critical between families and schools.
Aaron Lauchheimer is president of Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck, N. Y. Michael Rader is a WDS parent, active volunteer and lay leader.