Opinion: The Case For Day Schools

Opinion: The Case For Day Schools

Their finances should be our first priority.

The cost of Jewish day school education is a major topic of conversation within the Jewish community for two obvious reasons: Tuition is expensive — in some cases prohibitive — and there is a strong belief that day school education is a critical component of Jewish communal survival. It has proven effective in producing engaged, knowledgeable, and in-married adult participants in the Jewish community.

Drawing upon findings for the Jewish GDP project, an effort undertaken by Mark Pearlman and me to identify and quantify how American Jewish charitable funds are spent (“Nonprofits Still Seen Struggling,” Jan. 2), I want to make the case that:

Day schools are not unreasonably expensive

There are no silver bullets to reduce their cost

Their cost is borne by too small a group of people

Communal success will lead to greater day school spending

Day school finances should be the number one priority for communal leadership 

I focus here on day schools outside of the charedi/Yeshiva world, i.e. on schools designated as Reform, Conservative, Community or Modern/Centrist Orthodox. (That is because the charedi/Yeshiva segment of the community is operating with a very different set of demographic conditions, educational priorities, finances and institutional framework than the rest of community.)

Day School Expenses

Enrollment data for 2010-2011 from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) and budget data reported by schools to the IRS indicate that day school spending per student at that time averaged about $21,500. To put that into perspective, NCES data shows that spending per child in New York State public schools was $18,890 and in New Jersey $17,230. Considering that Jewish day schools are typically offering more hours of instruction per day, these costs per student do not seem excessive.

Of course boards should always be looking for ways to operate more efficiently, but education throughout our society is very expensive and day schools are no exception.

Recent efforts to cut costs without reducing quality include joint efforts for economies of scale, an emphasis on technology in the classroom, and Hebrew charter schools.  

Economies of scale do not exist in education in any meaningful way. When schools are small they offer fewer options to the students. When schools are large they split large classes into tracks to offer differentiated learning.

Can technology make education cheaper? I have been teaching at the university level for almost 20 years and we use more technology all the time. Tuition has increased faster than inflation all during that time. Technology if it is effective simply raises quality standards and performance expectations. 

Hebrew charter schools have the greatest potential because they manage to farm out to public funding a large portion of the cost of the schools. They can thus provide an environment that will enable us to retain students whose parents are unable to afford day school tuition. But these schools are limited in providing Jewish studies because of the separation of church and state. And providing deep after-school Judaic studies is challenging as we can see in the synagogue Hebrew School system. 

Who Bears The Cost?

We have found that at large day schools the tuition share of school revenue increased from 74.1 percent in 2007 to 82.4 percent in 2012, and in medium-sized schools the shift increase was from 60.1percent to 72.1 percent. These percentages actually are an underestimate of the share because parents make donations to the school in addition to paying tuition.

Based on the Avi Chai Foundation’s recent day school census and the 2013 Pew Study, we can roughly estimate that the percentage of non-charedi Jewish children in day school is 11 percent. So we can ask: If day schools are a major engine of communal success, why should the families of only 11 percent of the community’s children be carrying more than 75 percent of the financial burden of fueling that engine?  

A family with two children in day school may easily be spending $40,000 for tuition after-tax. Consider that another family with two children in public school may be making a $25,000 donation to the local Jewish federation. The second family’s net cost is less than that of the day school family. Yet which family is more likely to be honored by federation and invited to join the board and generally included in decision making?

Moreover, the day school family may be viewed unfavorably for making a small, or no donation to federation, having spent so much on tuition.

One might argue that the day school family spent the $40,000 on their children’s education and do not deserve any accolades.  However, they have a made an investment in the future of the community as well as their own children. Also, every dollar they spend in tuition makes the school more affordable for others. It also helps pay salaries for a large group of Jewish communal workers, including rabbis and Jewish educators, benefiting the community.

How Do We Measure Communal Success?

The Jewish community has yet to coalesce around a set of performance measures. However it is safe to say that we want to see more Jews and more engaged Jews. Therefore it is also probably safe to say that communal success will involve both higher birthrates and greater rates of day school attendance. The net result will be steady increases in day school enrollment and the need to fund more schools, plus the need to make up the difference between expenses and tuition revenue for a growing system.

The Jewish GDP project found that in 2012 the revenue of American Jewish federations combined was about $3.2 billion. The revenues of non-charedi day schools totaled about $1.8 billion (and the charedi school sector was $1.6 billion). This means that the Jewish day school system may well be the most important part of the Jewish institutional ecosystem. However, it appears that from the perspective of federations and Jewish philanthropic foundations, day schools are just one category of agency that serves a relatively small fraction of the entire Jewish community.  

I have made the argument here that education is expensive and will remain expensive, and that too small a portion of the Jewish community is bearing the cost. Further, we should want these costs to go up as an indicator of communal vibrancy. So what to do? 

The Jewish community should undergo a complete reorganization, making the day school its central institution. It would be a hub for many forms of educational and communal activities, displacing synagogues and JCCs and, to some degree the federation system itself, although there is room for all to evolve. The key, though, is to organize the community around our children and plan for success.

Edieal Pinker is a professor at the Yale University School of Management and a co-founder of The Jewish GDP Project, of which The Jewish Week is a partner.



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