It wasn’t the focus, but the incidental mention seemed to jump off the page at me. It came in an interview of Allen Fagin, the Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union, which appeared in a recent issue of the 5 Towns Jewish Times, a local Orthodox weekly. Fagin’s agenda for the interview was to encourage Orthodox Jews to get involved in state and local politics, where many decisions vital to the interests of the Orthodox community are made. “To ignore what happens in Albany [New York State’s capital] is not only a dereliction of our duty as citizens but contrary to our community’s self-interest.”
In the course of the interview, Fagin pointed with pride to the OU’s upgraded involvement in New York State’s budget process, which resulted in increased allocations for enhanced security in nonpublic schools. In addition, “for the first time in New York State history, this budget will start reimbursing [nonpublic] schools for math and science teachers.” That led, in turn, to the following exchange with his interviewer:
Q: This all sounds great, but when does it translate into lower tuition costs?
A: That’s never an easy answer. Tuition didn’t get to this level overnight and it won’t roll back overnight. Change often happens incrementally, and we have certainly seen progress. Many, as a result, have been able to hold the line on tuition. But that’s not enough. We will not be content until we see meaningful decreases in tuition costs for our families
Over the last few years, it has often seemed like everyone in the Orthodox community has been talking about day school affordability, so Fagin’s mention of the need for tuition relief was hardly surprising. What was surprising was his implicit acknowledgement that even government subsidies — often seen as a panacea for affordability — might not be enough to bring tuition costs down. If a school receives some kind of government subsidy to cover part of the cost that it formerly had to bear without government assistance, wouldn’t you expect that to result in lower tuition? I can understand a school’s waiting a year or two to make sure, given the vicissitudes of the funding process, that it can count on a particular subsidy continuing on an ongoing basis. But at some point — sooner rather than later — one would expect tuition-paying parents to become the primary beneficiaries of such a welcome development. Neither Fagin nor his interviewer, however, appears to share that expectation.
I have heard such concerns expressed before. During discussions on the prospect of government aid to Jewish day schools, one acquaintance or another has sometimes asserted that government assistance won’t solve the affordability problem because the schools would simply respond by raising tuition, leaving parents in the same position as previously.
In the past, I have been reluctant to accept the major premise of this argument. I have thought it self-evident that if significant additional money became available to Jewish day schools through some kind of government subsidy, the tuition-paying parents would be the primary beneficiaries. Yet Fagin’s response to his interviewer’s question, though diplomatically phrased, implies that neither of them expects subsidies to result in tuition relief without a struggle.
That argument doesn’t come out of nowhere. Its pedigree can be traced to long-running debates about federal grants and guaranteed loans for college tuition. Political conservatives have often argued against federally funded tuition grants or loans, contending that the expansion of such federal largesse has been responsible for the rise in college tuition at a rate far highrer than the rate of inflation. Further increases in federal dollars, they insist, would just result in tuition spiraling ever higher, as colleges continue to charge whatever the market will bear.
This perspective on rising college costs is an oversimplification, but it does contain at least a kernel of truth. There’s no denying that the greater availability of federal money for college tuition in recent decades has coincided with hyperinflationary increases in college tuition. The additional money certainly hasn’t gone into faculty compensation; except for a few schools at the top of the academic pecking order, colleges have cut back on tenure track positions, leaving a growing share of the actual teaching to teaching assistants and adjuncts.
But is the same dynamic really likely to apply to day school tuition? On college campuses, after all, the ultimate decision makers (lay trustees and top administrators) are often remote from the stakeholders who are affected by their decisions. Most day school boards, on the other hand, are dominated by current or former parents, who could be expected to be sensitive to the financial constraints affecting day school families. Most day school board members, moreover, have a principled commitment to day school education. Most no doubt believe that the near universality of day school education in the Orthodox community may well be the principal reason for the unanticipated success of Orthodox Judaism in America.
But while lay board members usually have the best of intentions, they may not always be as sensitive as we would hope. Day school boards for obvious reasons, tend to be drawn from the school’s more affluent families. We’ve been reminded from time to time in national politics that those who have grown up in relative affluence are often oblivious to the financial struggles of ordinary people. A similar dynamic can affect day school leaders.
I’m not attributing to day school leaders any nefarious motives. There are many entirely legitimate uses for additional funds. Some day schools struggle to pay their teachers on time. In others, lay leaders are constantly scrounging for the funds needed to keep the doors open. Any educator worthy of the name can no doubt think of many worthwhile uses for a sudden windfall. With multiple pressures from the school’s various stakeholders, it may be entirely legitimate for a school to use additional funds for a variety of purposes. Among these various uses, however, reducing the tuition burden needs to be a higher priority than many school boards would consider it.
Many school leaders probably believe that the availability of financial aid satisfies their obligation to relieve the burden of tuition on financially distressed families. In many schools, after all, few families actually pay the sticker price. However, the financial aid process can feel demeaning to many families, even in schools that are zealous about the protecting their privacy. It can also involve scrutiny of a family’s overall spending priorities, which may be unavoidable when funds are limited, but is uncomfortable at best — all of which means that generosity in financial aid is not an adequate substitute for lowering the overall sticker price.
I realize that I’m jumping ahead of myself here. All that has happened so far is that in one fiscal year in one state the OU has managed to obtain some government subsidy for science and math teachers. The interview contains no further details. Even if this achievement proves to be the beginning of a trend in New York, where the Orthodox community has more clout than elsewhere, it may have no bearing on what can be achieved elsewhere. In other words, even If school leaders behave optimally, it’s too early to start counting your tuition savings.
That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s too soon to start this phase of the discussion. The local-focused activism that Fagin is trying to stimulate will surely come easier if average families see themselves as having a stake in success. More important, we cannot afford to compromise the principle of universality in day school education. If tuition costs continue to rise and families are forced to pull their children out, we will eventually reach a tipping point at which educating observant children in Jewish day schools will no longer be the community’s default setting.
I don’t know how long it will take before we reach that tipping point — and frankly, I don’t want to find out.