It happens every year, right about this time, as parents send their children off to school. With the advent of social media, the complaints grow louder each year about the crushing blow of yeshiva day school tuition. This year, with the publication of a public Google document outlining Day School Tuition around the world, the exorbitant price of day school tuition is once again in the headlines.
But we had already known the truth: it might be $1,400 per child per year in one city, or $1,700 in another, but the high cost of day school tuition is a well-known fact in Orthodox circles. The crushing weight of tuition is crippling families, and has altered the very fabric of Orthodox life in the United States. Moreover, communal life revolves around fundraising for schools; every month there’s another program to raise money, from the Chinese Auction in the fall to the Purim Baskets in the winter to the annual dinner in the spring. To my mind, day school tuition is the great equalizer in the Orthodox community; if you have three or more children, then a family earning $80,000 (pre-tax) takes home essentially the same amount as a similar family earning double that; the first receives generous tuition assistance, while the second must pay full-fare. After taxes and tuition, both families are essentially in the same place, with just enough money to cover a mortgage payment (if they were lucky enough to buy a home before they had children), car payments, and basic expenses.
Most distressingly, there’s no real solution in sight. Sure, there’s administrative bloat, especially in the more established schools in major metropolitan areas. But schools have real costs, and those costs are not going down. Private education is expensive, and someone has to pay for it. While we can dream that Jewish billionaires establish slush-funds to cover our tuition, this has yet to happen and probably never will.
Some suggest aliyah. After all, tuition for an excellent yeshiva day school in Israel, while not free, costs a fraction of tuition in the United States. By that measure, parents can also send their children to a high school program in Israel for free. Now I’m not going to dissuade anyone from aliyah – I’m all for it. In fact, when people ask how we make ends meet in Israel, I ask the exact opposite question: How do you people survive in the US, under the crushing blow of day school tuition? Moreover, I know that college tuition will cost 14,000 NIS (perhaps a bit more in the future, but not much) per child per year — less than the cost of a year of high school yeshiva tuition. The prospect of paying for college in America seems overwhelming to me. In the end, the greatly reduced pay scale in Israel matched with the cost in American of tuition and health insurance seem to be a wash. Unless you own a business (or work in medicine in America — and perhaps not even then!), you won’t be wealthy either way. So why not live in the Jewish state.
Yet, the truth is that most American Orthodox Jews are not making aliyah. We can lament that fact, but it’s the simple truth. And, most people also don’t want to send their children halfway around the world for high school, even if it’s free. That leaves parents stuck with the bill for day school tuition.
I would like to offer a simple solution that sadly I never had the courage to try as a rabbi in the United States: charter school. And religious day school. Together.
Most Orthodox Jewish schools offer some combination of Judaic and secular education. Yet, by law, they cannot turn to the state for the secular half of that education, so parents end up paying for their children’s education twice: once through their (usually high) property taxes, and a second time in their after-tax day school tuition.
I suggest the following: A community should petition the state (let’s say New Jersey, just as a starting point) to open two non-denominational charter high schools. The school would offer a full slate of secular subjects with no religious instruction whatsoever, with a single caveat: Instruction takes place between the hours of 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. That’s plenty of time to fulfill any state educational requirements. At the same time, a shul in the area — and there a number of them in the Northern New Jersey area — would open a Judaic, morning-long Jewish studies program. It would offer high-level classes, begin with Tefillah in the morning, and essentially represent a half-day yeshiva day school program. Many shuls already have unused classrooms, large study halls and other facilities which are essentially unused for much of the week. In this system, parents would pay tuition to the school for Judaic studies, while the state would legally cover the bill for the secular portion of their children’s education.
Whenever I raise this suggestion to friends and acquaintances, they raise a number of objections. First, they argue, it’s impossible to open a charter school today. Not true. It might be challenging and difficult, but it’s certainly not impossible. I find it difficult to believe that the Jewish community cannot garner the resources and political clout in state capitols to extract permission for a small number of charter schools. Ironically, the people with the clout and power usually can afford day school tuition. Second, the charter school would have to be open to the entire population, exposing our children to outside influences. True, but the school would be run by the people that petition for the charter, who could then determine the nature and character of that school. Secondly, and more significantly, isn’t this a better option than sending our children to secular public school without any Jewish component at all? Finally, implementing such a system would endanger the established schools in many smaller cities. This is true. Smaller day schools count on every child and tuition to make ends meet. A less-expensive option could endanger the financial viability of these schools. That argument has merit, but essentially it means that the community is holding parents hostage and forcing them to send their children to day school because the community needs them. It isn’t fair, and children are falling out of the system entirely — a price that is simply too high to pay.
The Day School Tuition challenge reached crisis level long ago. Conventional solutions have helped alleviate some small amount of pain, but have not changed the fundamental nature of the problem. It’s time to start thinking outside the box. Afternoon charter schools might be one part of a solution. At the very least, they should be part of the conversation.