Tackling Day School Affordability

Tackling Day School Affordability

Recognizing that there are no magic bullets in alleviating the financial, emotional and other burdens on parents seeking to provide a quality day school education for their children at a time of economic recession, the leadership of the Orthodox Union sought this week to address the problem pragmatically.

Perhaps the most lasting benefit of the OU’s Summit on Day School Affordability, a two-day retreat held in suburban New Jersey, was that it brought together more than 175 leading rabbis, educators and lay leaders from around the country, informing them of the challenges and opportunities today and charging them with engaging their communities to take action.

The OU also awarded a total of $150,000 in “day school affordability challenge grants” divided among seven institutions, including Yeshivat He’Atid, a high-tech, low-cost Bergen County elementary school slated to open this fall and the Project Education Tuition Affordability Campaign in Brooklyn, an effort to “change the culture of giving” in the Sephardic community, resulting in more dollars staying within the community for Jewish education.

Several pulpit rabbis acknowledged their responsibility to assume more active leadership roles in their communities, encouraging congregants to become involved not only in the schools their children attend but in addressing the wider issue of affordable day school and yeshiva education.

Nathan Diament, who as executive director of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs helped organize the conference, noted that the cost required to educate a child in Orthodox day schools is similar to that of the cost for public and private school students. The problem, he said, is not so much that day school tuitions are too high but that growing numbers of families can no longer afford them. With the economic downturn, he said, “a significant problem has become a severe problem.”

Among the topics explored by the conference participants were charter school options, increased use of technology in the classroom and advocating for legislation that allows for government grants in areas like transportation, secular textbooks and food programs, and that do not impinge on church-state separation.

Another key message was for Orthodox Jews to collaborate with day school proponents from the wider Jewish community and to become more active in their local Jewish federations.

Two major federation executives who are strong proponents of day schools, Barry Shrage of Boston and John Ruskay of New York, addressed the conference, asserting that the future of day schools matters greatly to the future of the Jewish community. Ruskay noted that UJA-Federation of New York now has a director of Jewish day school advocacy working to help schools access available state funds and broaden the coalition of day school supporters.

It’s understandable that day school parents are worried and frustrated over their plight. But it would be more productive for them to share the responsibility for positive change than vent at the day schools, which themselves are caught in a financial bind. We commend the OU for identifying and tackling the problem, and encourage it to join forces with all those who care about and have expertise in day school education, across denominational lines.

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