I am doing something that I haven’t done before: recycling an old post. I wrote this post in May, 2005 but it seems to me that it applies to the Jewish community today more than ever. The spark to repost this came from an article in the Jerusalem Post telling of some Jewish day schools closing because of a financial crunch that is affecting the entire Jewish education (and synagogue) sector. I personally know of two schools that have recently closed. All of their families are leaving the fold of Jewish day school education.
This is a tragedy, but it need not happen. There are still ways to fix the situation. Allow me to propose the following hypothesis: IF YOU LOWER THE PRICE AND IMPROVE THE QUALITY, THEY WILL COME.
Below you’ll find what I wrote 4 years ago, updated just a little. If you know Jewish people of means, by all means, send them the link. Maybe somebody will move on some of the ideas here. Here’s that old post:
Well, let’s face it, one of the three married writers among the Jewlicious posters. I believe I’m one of only two fathers here as well (right, Muffti?). The two of us, Rabbi Yonah and I are the only ones who have to deal with the reality of Jewish education, and while I have posted about many things over the past months, the one topic that has been consuming my attention is this one.
It ain’t easy to provide Jewish education to your child because there are so many compromises involved.
The problems involve cost, quality and the general benefit.
The first question is that of the benefit. What does a Jewish day school education mean to a child? Will it make him a better Jew? Perhaps, but I believe our Muffti “he of the 3rd place in the Bible Quiz” grew up in a Jewish day school system that is among the better ones in North America, and today he is an avowed atheist. Then again, he is undeniably connected with his traditions and background. Perhaps his identity as a Jew, and his general comfort with his Jewishness are the reason he can afford to be an atheist. He is, after all, secure in the knowledge that he is a Jew.
Is Muffti an exception? Nope. Most Jews I know who attended Jewish day school identify strongly as Jews, although most are also secular. Even those who grew up Modern Orthodox or in strong Conservative homes have become fairly secular in their practice. Then again, most of these people married Jewish spouses and are active within their respective Jewish communities. Does it matter whether they keep shabbat as the rabbis demand? Not according to Bronfman, but ck tells us that it does matter.
Does Hebrew day school provide Hebrew? On a so-so level. You know how to read and write. You have a basic vocabulary. Opening a siddur in a synagogue comes naturally. If you go to Israel, however, you’re not going to have an easy time conversing with the natives. Different schools offer different amounts of Hebrew, but in my large urban city, the elementary schools are lucky to offer 45 to 60 minutes of Hebrew instruction per day.
They also offer a similar amount of Judaism classes. So they cover the torah, holidays and general history in another 45 to 60 minutes every day or three times a week. In some schools, they may combine the Hebrew with the Judaism, so the teacher has some flexibility regarding focus. Do the kids end up knowing the major holidays? Sure. Do they get to know the intricacies of Jewish history or values? Not at all. In fact, if you drill down and ask what Jewish values are, you’re going to end up with some sort of universal do-good humanism that suggests that our purpose as Jews is tikkun olam, and that tikkun olam means healing all the world equally.
What else do you get? In some schools you get daily or weekly prayers. In some there might be a minyan that gathers every morning. The walls are covered with artwork by the kids that pertains to Jewish life. Assemblies are called before some holidays and some schools offer some sort of Friday afternoon pre-shabbat service or gathering. Some schools require kippahs on boys at all times. Unkosher food is usually disallowed or discouraged, and if they offer hot lunches, they are typically kosher. The other children and their parents are usually Jewish.
At Orthodox schools there will be a greater emphasis on important Jewish texts and customs so the amount of time dedicated to study of Jewish topics is probably twice that of schools that are not guided by an Orthodox philosophy.
For this you pay about $12,000- $20,000 at most schools. Per child. Per year.
Some schools give you a small discount for the second child (or the third child if you’ve gone nuts and want to go bankrupt). If your income is below a certain level, you can bare ALL of your personal financial information, and they will send it to some centralized center in the Midwest that will crunch the numbers and figure out how much you have to pay. No matter how generous their discount, in proportion to your income, there will be a massive hit for every child you send to Jewish day school.
Now this isn’t a small matter and it isn’t just a sacrifice. This is meaningful. First, let me note that many of the parents, meaning people who put their kids through Jewish day schools and are now finished raising children, find themselves in some financial difficulties as they turn 60 and 70. This may depend upon their income as they went through life, but if we can extrapolate something, it is that middle class Jewish couples who sent their children to Jewish schools may have spent a significant portion of their future retirement money on their childrens’ education. They also used this money on Jewish education instead of trips to Israel. Certainly, they found it difficult to save for college.
It also affects how much house one can afford since two children would be costing an upper middle class family (in the U.S., $200,000/year places a family in the top 3% of all families) $20,000 – $28,000 after taxes. This translates to about $40,000 per year before taxes. That same family is probably paying about $55,000 – $75,000 in taxes, so their $200,000 becomes about $105,000 per year before they eat, drink and put a roof over their head. And this is a family in the upper 3% of incomes! What happens to the family that makes $100,000? Well, they’ll probably pay about $28,000 to $33,000 in taxes, and then pay about $5000 per child after they bare their finances to the school. So they have to spend $38,000 – $43,000 out of their $100,000 before they eat or drink or put a roof over their heads.
As we can see, Hebrew day school, by its nature, is a game for the impoverished who receive complete subsidization, or rich, upper middle class, and completely insane middle class people who would sacrifice their kids’ college funds, their own retirements, and their standard of living in order to send their kids to these schools.
Now here’s the really unhappy part of the whole story. As I’ve noted, this is already a self-selecting crowd. Most people cannot afford or are unwilling to make the sacrifices I’ve just outlined. And it’s not as if they but a Lexus with the savings. Nope, they simply live, from an economic standpoint, like normal middle class people. So what’s the unhappy part? The quality of the education.
Trust me on this, I’m an expert. The key benefit of Jewish schooling is that you get both a secular and a Jewish component daily, with all the attendant extra hours at school and with homework that this entails. That combination trains you well for college and other aspects of life. You’re used to working harder and longer than most kids. However, usually the education both secular and Jewish is average.
Actually, I don’t even know whether it’s average because most of the parents are educated and able to offer their children a support system at home. I suspect this helps many of the kids overcome the mediocrity thrown their way at many Jewish day schools. Many of the teachers are mediocre, but hold on to jobs for years and years – long after they’ve lost any fire in the belly to teach.
The schools often don’t test the kids because they’re supposed to be open to any Jewish child. This means that you might get “Gary” in your child’s class. Who is Gary? Gary is the moronic troublemaker who has ADD and needs to be medicated, but his parents think that it’s normal for him to abuse the little girls in class while laughing at the teacher to her face and telling her to fuck off. So they do nothing about him, and your child is assigned to the desk right next to Gary’s because somebody believes he’ll be a good influence.
Another problem is with “Irma” and “Jake” who are also both nuts and shouldn’t be there. But Jake and Irma’s dad owns a large chain of bagel stores and has always been a generous benefactor to the school. Plus, he pays full fare for the kids. So the school knows the kids are little shits, but won’t call the dad or mom because, well, because they’re loaded and give generously.
Ultimately, the tradeoff becomes about what one can afford, what risks one is willing to take with one’s financial future, providing an average secular education to a bright child among other bright children (while paying the equivalent of a decent private school), providing an average Judaic education, and surrounding them daily with a Jewish environment.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Here’s what needs to happen:
1. The UJF or equivalent organizations need to be keeping more of the money it sends to Israel. Typically they send 50% of every dollar to Israel. Except that Israel does not have the troubles that have descended upon North American Jewry, especially regarding assimilation and apathy towards organized Jewish life and Jewish traditions. In short, stop sending money to Israel, its economy is growing and healthy. That money needs to be funneled directly to North American Jewish education.
2. Each city or in smaller markets, each state, needs to have a committee overseeing all of the Jewish day schools. Committee tenure cannot exceed 5 years, and every two years at least half the committee has to change. There should be a national overarching committee providing guidance to all local/state committees. This committee is tasked with locating the latest and best research on effective teaching and passing it on to the local committees. The committees can be staffed by financial heavyweights, but there needs to be a professionals within committees who have proven themselves by having run successful Jewish schools in the past. Success can be measured in many ways, but consider student achievement, college placements, strong parent bodies, and a general feeling that the school is undeniably the best in its region. We all know schools like that, and they have principals and leaders who could teach others a thing or two.
3. Stop wasting resources on too many schools. How many 70 -100 person schools should a city support? Does every movement have to offer its own schools? Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, can be saved by consolidating schools. Whatever resources can be shared, should be shared. Cost savings will be substantial – one principal instead of three, 3 secretaries instead of 9, one facility instead of 3, one set of lawyers, accountants and auditors instead of 3.
4. Get some real money. Just how much money can Jewish benefactors give to non-Jewish causes before their kids intermarry and have christmas trees instead of chanukiahs? Let’s design a charitable entity whose sole purpose will be to get the $10 million and $100 million gifts, instead of some fancy building at some university or hospital. Let’s put a serious endowment together. Let the national committee manage its allocation to local committees.
5. Lower costs for parents. Cut them in half. Cut them by two thirds! The likelihood of getting more kids to attend Hebrew day school will increase dramatically if the costs become manageable. What is manageable? About half to two-thirds of today’s rates. The family that pays $32,000 for two kids, will pay $10,000. This frees up a lot of money and will enable them to choose to take on this burden. The poorer family that pays $10,000 for two, will now only pay $3000-$5000. This will increase the number of middle class families who can afford the cost by a considerable number. Like any enterprise, there will be a tipping point here where people will say, “Hmm, for that amount, I can afford it and it won’t wipe me out.” Many more will send their kids, thereby increasing revenues for our newly consolidated schools. Let’s not forget that you pay the teacher the same whether the class has 20 kids or 13. And the building won’t become any smaller – fixed costs remain the same whether the school houses 200 or 300 students.
6. Market aggressively, and demand that synagogues and other Jewish institutions participate in the marketing. If they don’t, their allotment of UJF funds should be diminished. Why should the community be as supportive of institutions that don’t promote its future as those that do? Use carrot and stick if you have to.
7. Test the kids. I’m sorry if that means “Gary” can’t attend. However, if Gary’s presence might drive other kids out, he should be left out in the cold or be medicated.
8. Streamline kids. Give kids the ability to learn at their own speed among peers of the same ability. Averaging out abilities is quaint, but everybody suffers because those who need more attention and time rarely get enough. Those who can move faster through the process, end up wasting years in absolute boredom.
9. Offer quality extracurricular activities. Jewish schools need to be competitive with public schools as well as other private schools. Also, these can be money making programs that keep the kids in the Jewish environment. Trust me, the parents would rather not have to drive Yitzhak to karate class if karate class was offered after school on school grounds.
10. Increase teacher salaries or improve benefits so they outclass other school systems. Then test the teachers and evaluate them semi-annually on an objective basis and with some sort of parent and child anonymous rating system. “Tenure” might mean that your scores don’t count for a two year period instead of annually. However, your performance as a teacher matters or you’re out. Also, no teacher is hired unless she comes with strong credentials or references.
11. Make principals accountable. School population drops for two years in a row? Dump the principal. Grades drop for two years running? Dump the principal. Test scores drop for two years running? Dump the principal. Teachers consistently getting bad reviews? Dump the principal.
12. Improve curricula for both secular and Judaic studies. Very simply, these schools need to be competitive with the best schools in their respective cities, and the Judaic component needs to be excellent. Offer support in the form of roving teachers who supplement those kids who need extra help.
13. As much as possible, foster interaction with other Jewish schools in the region. Enough segregation, and enough of keeping different streams apart. The Orthodox school should welcome the chance to visit the Reform school, and vice versa. Don’t know how to do it? Have sports days or theater days where the school bodies can have a shared experience.
14. Stop wasting time and do it now, before it’s too late.