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The tuition crisis is about a lot more than dollars

WHY is the day school movement not growing?

Perhaps a particular school — or city — is an exception to the  trend, but the so-called tuition crisis is taking its toll.

Sixteen years ago, before the Denver Academy of Torah was founded, Hillel Academy had 300 students. Sixteen years later, the combined enrollment of DAT and Hillel Academy totals 340 students. That’s a 13% gain over 16 years. Whatever the exact annual percentage gain this represents, it’s very small.

I didn’t run the numbers on the other Denver schools, but from what I’m told — give or take a variation one year or another — the numbers are also flat.

From what I’m told — I did not take a survey — the same is true in most other cities.

Why is this so? Clearly the consciousness of the importance of Hebrew day schools has risen dramatically. It used to be a fight to get community leaders to assent to the notion that intensive Jewish education is a key to the Jewish future. This is no longer so.

In fact, “Jewish education” has become so credible that all kinds of programs which are not intensive Jewish education rush to define themselves this way. It’s popular.

The main problem in day school enrollment is the tuition crisis, but what, exactly, is this crisis? At bottom, it’s not just about dollars, but about commitment.

The typical complaint goes like this: It costs $20,000 annually (or, in some cities, $50,000) to send two children to a Hebrew day school.

This isn’t college, this is before college. It’s too much. It’s impossible.

And that’s if you have two kids. What if you have four? (If you have or six or eight kids, they’re in day schools).

More and more parents are considering other options, among them public schools, Hebrew charter schools and home schooling.

In a word, even with tuition assistance, the costs are spiraling out control. Even some parents who are the natural constituency for day schools are looking elsewhere.

But I contend that the crisis is not only about dollars. Day schools have never been inexpensive. Why the shift away from them? 

THE context has changed in four ways.

First, some 50 years ago, if you sent your children to a day school, nothing ranked above your commitment to pay for it.

This is no longer so. There are many competitors for the highest Jewish priority, and even if these competitors are not considered the “highest” priority, their rank has risen. In relationship to them, the importance of expenditure on day school education has fallen.

Item: Expenditures on weddings and Bar Mitzvahs have jumped manyfold. The $1 million mikveh is not a rarity. The shul must be supported in style. And a new slew of worthy causes siphon off resources from day schools: the special needs programs, the kollel, the soup kitchen in Israel (not to mention the federation), the Tomchei Shabbos, the bikkur cholim, the Jewish nursing home, the Jewish defense agencies, the list is almost endless. The minimum definition of a quality Jewish life has widened considerably.

Item: An automobile can no longer be more than a few years old, if that; a kitchen must be remodeled, an air flight to the East or West Coast must be made, a minimum acceptable quantity of clothing has risen dramatically, and what is a community if it does not have at least one kosher restaurant? What is life if it does not include eating out? The minimum definition of a quality standard of living has widened considerably.

The tuition crisis takes place in a context. It’s not just that tuitions are high; they must compete with a family’s other expenditures.

In a word: some of the potential additional funds are available, but the value system, and the sophistication of the community in developing other important services, have vitiated against expending these funds on day schools.

That’s the first change in context: the commitment to the day school has — put it however you want — leavened, decreased, scattered. However you put it, the available dollars, even proportionate to income, has dropped, at least in most cases.

THE second change in context is this:

As one generation goes and estates are passed on, the greatest transfer of wealth in history is underway, but along the way, most of the tranferers and tranferees have not been convinced that intensive Jewish education is the first priority of the Jewish community.

The number of eight-figure donations from Jews to universities dwarfs the number to day schools.

The number of “superfunds” for day schools is, to my admittedly limited knowledge, limited to a single Jewish community in the US. Even if I missed a superfund or two, basically, they don’t exist.

In a word: the potential funding in the wider Jewish community is there, but the commitment is not, all the lip service to Jewish education notwithstanding.

THE third change in context is this:

When the day school boom began in the 1950s, the idea was to send children to an elementary school, through sixth or eighth grade. Only some 25 years later did research show that the positive effects on Jewish identity from a day school education did not last unless it continued through high school.

The burden of six or eight years of tuition became 12. Actually, it’s at least 12. In many circles, the post-high school year of study in Israel has been added. Either way, the number of those $10,000 or $25,000 checks has jumped by a third, or doubled, per student. Not to mention, it’s more expensive to educate a high school student than an elementary school student.

The commitment expected of parents has risen dramatically.

THE fourth change in context is this:

Parents and students expect Jewish day schools to provide a lot more than they used to. It’s not enough for them to offer a quality Jewish and secular education.

Most schools must compete with the offerings in public schools.

In order to compete for students, most Jewish day schools must offer at least one of the following: a quality special needs program, a quality music program,  a quality leadership opportunity, a quality sports program, a quality art program,a quality AP track, not to mention training for a university or yeshiva — and a star quality computer lab.

The idea of choice behind a day school education has nearly died. Typically, one no longer says: I shall value a quality Jewish education for my child and understand that, to do so, I need to choose it over music, sports, art, leadership or — fill in the blank.

Yes, there is a tuition crisis, and yes, the dollars loom large in defining the crisis. But there’s a lot more at play. The idea that one has to sacrifice beyond a certain point in order to endow one’s children with a quality Jewish education has, for many parents, died.

On the other hand, from a certain perspective, flat enrollment is a form of growth. Since assimilation is skyrocketing, even a steady enrollment means that a greater proportion of the actual, identified Jewish community is opting for a day school education. The tuition crisis notwithstanding, intensive day school education remains the gold standard.

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IJN Executive Editor | [email protected]

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