The vast majority of Orthodox Jews in America send their children to Yeshiva Day schools, where annual tuition can run from from $10,000 to $30,000 per kid. Many people struggle to pay such high tuition rates with their after-tax incomes, which has caused a “tuition crisis” in the community. This is a major problem, but it can also serve as an impetus to help re-think our educational system. This post will discuss solutions that provide other potential benefits besides saving money.
What parents want
Before considering potential solutions, it’s worth asking – why do parents spend so much to send their children to Jewish schools? One reason is so that their kids gain specific knowledge about Jewish topics. However it’s questionable if kids really learn that much in school, so it seems parents have a more primary motive. They want their kids to continue in their religious path, so they want their kids to be in an environment that is conducive to this. Any solution to the tuition crisis should recognize this goal.
The simplest way to save tuition money would be to send children to public school and have them learn Jewish studies after school. This “Hebrew School” model used to be very common but it did not work out very well and it died out. Recently, Yigal Gross suggested we try that again, but do it better this time with higher quality afternoon yeshiva options. It’s possible this proposed school option would be able to teach more than the bygone hebrew schools, but that’s not the real issue. The real question is whether the values and atmosphere of public schools will affect the religious values that parents want to pass on to their children.
As I mentioned in a comment on Yigal’s post, there may be something about being in a religious surrounding all day that matters. Perhaps having additional hebrew school after a day of regular school will just cause kids to resent it. School is hard enough on kids as it is, so going to two schools may not be the best idea. (For further discussion of this public school option, see also this reply by Rafi Eis.)
Some parents may be willing to take these risks, but perhaps they can find alternatives to standard public schools. One option would be to attend (or help create) publicly-funded schools that are more accommodating to religious people. In recent years, Hebrew charter schools such as Shalom Academy opened and they enroll a diverse body of students. Perhaps districts with large numbers of religious children could build similar schools. However these schools could would face many challenge, and they would still be unacceptable to a large number of parents, especially in more right-wing circles.
If families want to avoid high tuition costs in America, another option would be to move to Israel where tuition is practically free. This fulfills many religious values as well, and is much easier to do today than in any time in the past, despite certain economic trade-offs. Although the average salary in Israel is lower than in America, the tuition savings (not to mention health insurance savings) can be large enough to offset this difference. While many things in Israel (such as cars and cottage cheese) are more expensive than in America, other things (such as cell phone plans and shawarma) are considerably cheaper. The economic considerations of moving to Israel depend on many different factors (such as your family’s shawarma to cottage cheese consumption ratio).
Regardless of the economic factors, moving to a different country is a major change, so it’s not something everyone will suddenly undertake. Certain communities may also find religious challenges specifically in Israel, while some may be concerned about security issues there in both the short and long term. So while Aliyah is something individual families should consider, it will not solve the overall tuition crisis in America.
The tuition crisis could be solved if the US governments would support school vouchers for private schools. Vouchers are politically difficult to pass for a number of reasons. The majority saves money by not paying for the education of certain minorities (whether or not that’s fair), so why would they change the law? However, as I discussed in my last post, offering vouchers would benefit everyone, not just religious people. By arguing for these broad benefits, one can build support across many strands of society to help overcome the political challenges. But the most difficult challenge may be overcoming the stiff resistance of the teachers unions to any measures that threaten their control of education.
It is still worth uniting with other groups and pushing for measures that can at least help in some ways. For example, in many states it may be more feasible to push for tax exemptions and tax credits instead of outright vouchers. In addition, families can move to states that have more school-choice friendly laws and push to improve them over time. This could also be an opportunity for the Jewish community to branch out away from the NYC metropolitan area and move to other (more friendly) communities.
Even if we keep the current system of privately-funded schools, there are ways to reduce tuition costs considerably. Most schools follow a traditional format of learning – students sit in a classroom and listen to a teacher talk about a topic (such as how to read bar graphs). This lecture-style format is expensive and inefficient and can be quite boring and ineffective as well. New technologies can make learning more individualized and engaging and at a much lower cost. Instead of passively listening to a teacher talk to a group, students can go through interactive digital tutorials at their own pace. This would allow the structure of school to be changed, and let each student learn according to his ability instead of according to his class. Meanwhile, by spending less time on lecturing teachers will have more time available to offer students individualized feedback and guidance. Overall, fewer teachers will be needed, which is the most significant way to reduce tuition costs.
Public schools can be slow to adapt new methods, but private schools can take a leading role here in advancing education. Yeshivat He’Atid of Bergenfield, N.J. is an example of a school following this model of education, and over time more schools can follow their example. See my post The Future of Education for more on this topic.
Homeschooling and Group-schooling
Another option for some parents could be to homeschool their children. While some parents might want to consider literal at-home private schooling, this can be inefficient and goes against Judaism’s 2000 year-old tradition of community schooling. But there are options that are still leaner than established schools that are worth considering. Small groups of students could meet in a synagogue with a teacher for part of the day to study in a semi-structured setting. This would save significantly on school buildings and administrators, and would be more similar to the traditional system of Jewish education. In many ways this model is more feasible now, since online education can offer more advanced courses and options than even the largest school. The total tuition for 10 kids in a school could be over $200,000, but as a group on their own it would be far less expensive. This small-scale education option is something groups of families can consider, even if it’s not something that can easily scale to the whole community.
Many of these solutions to the tuition crisis can pose a challenge for the established schools. Competition is a good thing and should encourage innovation from all sides. The goal should always be to find the best solution to improve the education of our children, not to help protect the incumbents. To paraphrase the Talmud, an established educational entity cannot prevent another from teaching, for competition between different educational options increases wisdom.