Douglas Aronin
Douglas Aronin

Day schools and the Orthodox future

With the school year beginning, we can expect again to hear a great deal  about what has in recent years become something of an obsession in much of the organized Jewish community — what is sometimes called the day school affordability crisis.

The word crisis here is something of a misnomer.   A crisis usually connotes a challenge that is sudden and unexpected.  The looming threat presented by the spiraling cost of Jewish day school education, on the other hand, has been with  us for years.  The only sudden development is the community’s unwillingness or inability to continue ignoring it.
The problem is difficult to solve but easy to state.  Jewish day schools, on the whole, charge parents more than they can afford, pay teachers less than they need to live on and still have trouble making ends meet.  Both logic and experience suggest that this cannot go on indefinitely.
Why have we started to pay attention to this problem after ignoring it for so long?  Mostly, I suspect, for the same reason that so many voters have been responsive to the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and (lehavdil) Donald Trump.  It has taken some years for the pain caused by economic stagnation to reach down into the middle class.  That has now happened, however, and ordinary middle class people are finding it increasingly challenging to sustain a middle class lifestyle within the limits of a stagnant income.  Parents of modest means who want to provide a Jewish day school education for their children are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain.  Those who have so far managed to hang in are becoming increasingly nervous.
The country is not currently in recession, which ironically is part of the problem.  In a cyclical recession, those fortunate enough to have jobs tend to hang on, refraining from precipitous lifestyle changes while waiting for better times.  Individual schools, faced with the necessity of offering additional financial aid to those families hit hard by economic disaster, try to get by with modest budget cuts, and, for those schools fortunate enough to have large donors, by asking those donors for emergency funds to help them weather the storm.
But what happens when the recession ends and there is still little or no relief in sight?  Schools need money to pay salaries and other expenses and hard-pressed administrators and lay leaders become less sympathetic to reasonable requests for financial aid.  Major donors find themselves flooded with more charitable needs than they can support.  Teachers who cannot afford to live on day school salaries start looking for new careers.  Hard-pressed families, increasingly nervous about impending college costs and retirement needs and wary of the prospect of being forced into early retirement, begin to reevaluate their priorities.  Sound familiar?
Of course, this doesn’t happen everywhere at the same time.  The overall economic climate varies from one community to another, and  needs and resources differ from school to school.  Older, more established schools with sizable reserves, stable alumni and donor bases and buildings that are owned free and clear may be able to weather economic storms, perhaps with the aid of relatively minor cost-saving measures.  But as tuition charges continue to increase, and the income gap between the wealthy and everyone else grows ever wider, only families who are either exceptionally affluent or exceptionally  committed to day school education will remain.  The notion that committed families will somehow find a way no matter how much of their income is going to day school tuition is ludicrous.
The problem manifests itself somewhat differently depending on which part of the Jewish community you’re looking at.  My focus here will be on the modern (i.e., .non-Chareidi) Orthodox, for whom the affordability problem presents an existential challenge.   The Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter day school system has also been hard hit, experiencing sharply declining enrollments on top of the demographic decline of the movement as a whole.  But the Conservative movement has never relied on its day school system the way the Orthodox have.  In the Conservative movement, day schools have been commonly considered a luxury item and have never been the educational vehicle of the majority
At the other end of the ideological spectrum, Chareidi school systems, buoyed by high birthrates and ironclad commitment to day school education, enjoy robust enrollment, but few of the students’ families pay full tuition.  For the Chareidi communities, the affordability crisis is one part of the challenge of Chareidi life as a whole.  At its center is the kollel ideal, which encourages men to continue learning Torah full-time for as long as possible.  One result is that many Chareidi men, when they finally leave the yeshiva and face the need to earn a living, find themselves lacking in marketable skills — and this at a time that decent jobs increasingly require ever higher levels of secular education.
 Chareidi schools differ widely, and many try valiantly to provide a high quality education, both secular and Judaic, despite the financial challenges they face.  Others, however, when it comes to general studies, seem to be engaging in a race to the bottom.   In New York City, recently, much attention has been focused on claims that a large group of Chasidic-affiliated schools have failed to comply with the minimum requirements set by the state.  These may be extreme cases,  but schools need money to operate, and Chareidi schools tend to make their general studies programs low priority. (Girls schools often fare better, if only because Chareidi leaders want women to have income producing skills in order to support their husbands who are learning full-time in kollel).  Some schools, with the best of intentions, are unable to find the funding they need and delay paying faculty,  If that still leaves them short, many have been known to delay paying faculty or have become overly aggressive in finding ways to access government funds. As the crisis worsens,  Chareidi schools will respond by cutting back general studies programs, cultivating a few more affluent donors — an increasingly challenging process given the decreasing number of Chareidim who are financially successful and otherwise limping along somehow.  In the long run, the kollel ideal in its present form is unsustainable, but it will take years to persuade Chareidi leaders to modify it.
It is the modern Orthodox community, however, where the challenge of day school affordability presents a potentially existential  threat.  That community has managed to defy historical precedent by thriving demographically without spurning the benefits that flowed to Jews from the emancipation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The near universality of day school education in that community has been a critical facet of the formula for that success.  Trying to navigate the assimilatory pressures of American life without a day school education is at best a difficult trip into uncharted waters.
In today’s hyper-competitive, professional environment, where a first-rate education is becoming ever more critical to their children’s future success, modern Orthodox parents will not tolerate a second-rate secular education.  As a result, modern Orthodox schools do not have the option of imitating the Chareidi schools by reducing the quality of the general studies education.  It is unlikely that significant numbers of modern Orthodox parents will abandon day school education any time soon; the preference for day schools is too deeply ingrained. But if schools are unwilling or unable to offer sufficient financial aid, some parents will feel that they have no choice.
The critical point, moreover, is that the successful formula for modern Orthodox life has been the near-universality of day school education within the modern Orthodox community, i.e., the fact that in most such communities sending children (other than children with special needs that are clearly beyond the capacity of day schools to handle) to public schools is socially unacceptable.  How many non-special needs children within a given community would have to break ranks before they reach a tipping point, after which parents would feel freer to evaluate day school education as one of several options, rather than as the option of choice by communal consensus?
For decades now, many in the Orthodox community have viewed increasing government support as the ideal solution to the problem of day school affordability. Because much of the secular Jewish establishment has vigorously opposed any government assistance to religious schools, day school advocates have often exaggerated the extent of their influence.  If only the secular Jewish establishment  would stop putting abstract church-state concerns ahead of Jewish continuity,many have said, we could persuade the government to bear much of the burden of secular education for day school studens.  Why, this argument goes, should Orthodox Jews have to forfeit their right to government supported secular education because they choose to send their children to religious schools?  Instead of forcing everyone to obtain education through the government monopolistic school system, give everyone a voucher that can be used at the school of their choice.
In principle I agree — but there’s a small catch.  A universal voucher system sounds great, but it’s not going happen, at least not in the foreseeable future.  There has been some progress in clearing away the judicially created obstacles to government assistance to religious schools. In some states, this process has brought tangible benefits in funding for ancillary services such as transportation.  The support for ancillary services is surely helpful, but rarely if ever will it be game changing.
The voucher programs that have been tried thus far have all been small scale programs intended to create an escape route for children trapped in dysfunctional urban school systems.   Nowhere has there been a serious attempt to enact the kind of universal voucher program that would be necessary for such a program to be the salvation of Jewish day schools.
That reality is unlikely to change because a universal voucher system would be a political orphan.  Democrats don’t want it because of their ties to teachers’ unions, and also because of a visceral distrust of religious education generally.  Republicans don’t want it  because they are allergic to spending money; given a choice between tax cuts for the wealthy and a universal voucher system (which would require state governments to spend money for the benefit of those children who already attend private schools, in most states about ten percent),  Republicans will choose the tax cuts.  Most important, suburban parents are generally satisfied with the schools their children attend and will not tolerate radical change in the name of what amounts to an abstract theory.
So where do we go from here?  It’s hard to know, in part because the future of Jewish day schools is intertwined with the economic and political future of the country as a whole.  What seems obvious is that if present trends continue unabated, the pressure on day school families may well become irresistible, and the universality of day school education in the modern Orthodox community may become unsustainable. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting uncomfortably close.
As far as I know, there is no magic bullet with which we can resolve this problem.  Proposed fixes have included “no frills” schools, increased access to Federation dollars, increased utilization of on-line tools, encouraging the move toward more Hebrew language charter schools on which private religious studies could be piggy-backed, increased use of home schooling and various schemes to attract donor dollars from a broader base.  Maybe the answer will be a workable mix of all these proposals, or maybe it will come from proposals that haven’t yet been conceived.
What’s most important is that the subject of day school affordability remain high on the communal agenda.  It won’t go away and it won’t solve itself.  Families that need financial aid should receive it, and schools that need help in meeting expenses should be helped.  The modern Orthodox community should try to find a financially viable way to preserve the universality of Jewish day school education.
At the end of the day, our success in preserving that principle may depend on factors beyond our control such as the health of the overall economy and the composition of the Supreme Court.  That is no excuse for ignoring this threat.  In the well-known words of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Tarfon: “You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.” (Avot 2:21)

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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