In the nearly two years that I have worked in the field of Jewish day school finance, no topic has generated more emotion or been the subject of more debate than the issue of Jewish day school affordability.
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper’s 2012 article on the moral costs of a Jewish day school placed the spotlight on communal tuition policies and the moral dilemma that the Jewish community faces from a tuition system that has transformed nearly half of participants from community contributors to charity recipients.
Gary Rosenblatt penned a thoughtful and sensitive profile of one New York family and its struggle to balance Jewish educational priorities with financial realities and lifestyle aspirations (“The Day School Dilemma,” May 3).
Both of these articles highlight the tuition plight of middle and upper middle-income families.
In the world of Jewish day school finance, “middle income” is typically defined as families with pre-tax incomes of $150,000-$300,000 and more. Within the United States, these families constitute the top 10 percent of all earners. Within the Jewish day school universe, top 10 percent is a dubious distinction. Most of these families are full tuition payers barely able to keep their heads above water. Often ineligible for or unwilling to apply for traditional tuition assistance, they wind up paying a very large percentage (often 30 percent or more) of their income in tuition order to send their children to a Jewish day school.
To address this tuition inequity as well as to improve retention of larger, middle-income families, The Avi Chai Foundation is embarking on a middle-income affordability pilot program. Based on a model recently adopted by the Solomon Schechter School of Greater Boston (ssdsboston.org), pilot schools would agree to cap tuition as a percent of pre-tax income for middle and upper income families. This would enable larger, middle-income families to anticipate their maximum future tuition obligations and confidently enroll their children in a Jewish day school year after year, regardless of the number of children. While both the income range and the percentage cap would vary slightly among schools, qualifying families would be expected to pay the lesser of full tuition or 15 percent of pre-tax income.
Let’s use the husband and wife profiled in Rosenblatt’s article as an example. They earn $200,000 and may eventually enroll all three of their children in a day school. With one child enrolled currently, they would be expected to pay the full $20,000 in tuition, since $20,000 is still less than 15 percent of their pre-tax income. However, when their second and third child enrolls in day school, their total tuition will be capped at $30,000 or 15 percent of their income.
While such a program may result in modestly lower tuition for a day school in the short term, Avi Chai hopes that such programs can, over a longer period of time, significantly improve retention of larger families and possibly spur enrollment of new families. If the latter turns out to be true, schools with empty seats could eventually see an increase in their net revenues.
Avi Chai is not the only foundation focused on the issue of middle-income affordability. Through the Jim Joseph Foundation’s (JJF) Los Angeles High School Affordability Initiative, more than 200 high school students of middle-income families have received meaningful tuition discounts. The schools participating in this program have committed to raise the necessary funds — during the JJF grant period — to continue the program for at least an additional six years. (The funding did not begin until the Los Angeles federation raised more than $4 million.) Other community-based middle-income affordability initiatives are occurring in places such as Montreal and MetroWest, N.J. Each of these communities has channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars to middle-income families and has done so through a process that does not require families to reveal so much about their personal finances.
Individual day schools are taking the bull by the horns as well. The Boston-based Maimonides School has announced a tuition cap program for the upcoming school year for certain grades. SAR High School in Riverdale just launched a program under which eligible high school students will receive a $2,000 tuition credit. As noted in a May 10 Letter to the Editor in The Jewish Week, Manhattan’s Beit Rabban is currently working out the details for a new middle income affordability initiative and is considering joining the Avi Chai pilot.
None of these programs, in and of themselves, will fully solve the issue of middle-income affordability. Jewish day schools will never be free and will almost always require families to make certain financial trade-offs. But the Jewish community must work hard to ensure that families whose earnings place them in the top 10 percent of the country don’t go broke in their own communities. I believe that this work is well underway.
Daniel Perla is program officer, day school finance, for the Avi Chai Foundation.