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The Day School Crunch

The Day School Crunch

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

It’s all too easy to complain about the cost of tuition, but it’s important to look at both sides of the issue. JTA’s Jacob Berkman has an excellent piece on the angst of yeshivas and day schools as they cope with skyrocketing costs and increasing demand for scholarships.

The crisis moved the Orthodox Union to hold a recent seminar to search for solutions.

“Education officials say the more than 800 Jewish day schools in the United States, with 200,000-plus students, are in trouble as tuition dollars decrease, the need for financial aid rises and the pool of available philanthropic dollars shrinks,” writes Berkman.

“We are now in an industrywide crisis,” Moshe Bane, the chairman of the board of governors of the Orthodox Union, told the meeting of more than 60 officials from Jewish day schools at the organization’s New York offices.”

While individual schools should be judged on how much bang they give for their buck, no one should look at attendance in a well-run private school as a right that should be handed over for nothing or next to it. The survival of every one of these institutions depends on a thriving partnership between administration and parents, alumni and supporters, since the level of government aid is negligible and the majority of yeshivot are not part of a parent or umbrella organization, in the way that Catholic schools are run by the Church.

Chasidic yeshivot are an exception, with sects like Lubavitch and Satmar running systems that are comparable, or larger than the school systems of many cities. Somehow, they manage to keep tuition low enough for large families to send multiple children there from nursery through high school and beyond. Centralized purchasing is one asset, donated food and texts another, and it is unlikely there are many administrators earning six-figure salaries with generous retirement packages. More likely, these underpaid rabbis view their service as an obligation to the community and their contribution to a system relied on by their children and grandchildren.

The Reform and Conservative movements also have their system of day schools, but enrollment in those schools are a small fraction of the estimated 200,000 kids in Jewish non-public schools.

Most other yeshivas share some resources and expertise and unite on common issues, but are essentially islands unto themselves. Maybe they should look to the example of the corporate world and think about mergers and consolidation. While non-Orthodox schools will never merge with yeshivot, they might start thinking about pooling some resources for secular studies. Some are already talking about holding joint advanced placement classes, according to JTA. A lot more than that can be done.

On Long Island, the Hebrew Academy of Five Towns and Rockaway recently joined with Rambam Mesivta High School and the Shalhevet girls’ school to form Machon HaTorah, an organization that now runs three unique schools with a common administration, reducing administrative and other costs. This could be a useful model for other schools around the country.

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