With 81 percent of Orthodox parents having a child in day school or yeshiva, tuition is their single-biggest expense. With annual fees starting at around $15,000 per child and surpassing $30,000 in high school, an average Orthodox family (4.1 children, according to Pew) will pay $1 million in education costs before their kids even reach college.
“This is the single-most important economic issue facing our community,” said Allen Fagin, chief professional officer at the Orthodox Union. “We are seeing too many cases of parents who would prefer to send their kids to yeshivot or day schools who are opting for public education because they simply can’t afford the cost of day school.”
Even parents who are able to scrape together the money necessary to send their kids to Jewish schools often find they can’t afford much else, noted Cheryl Rosenberg, president of the Ben Porat Yosef day school in Bergen County and a parent of four children at the school.
The Orthodox community long relied on private philanthropy to defray tuition costs, applying philanthropic largesse to everything from capital campaigns to financing individual student scholarships. Now fighting the tuition crisis takes a host of unorthodox strategies to keep Jewish education affordable.
One of the main focal points: Securing more public funds for non-public schools, an effort that benefits any family with a child in a non-public school.
In New York State, which has the largest Jewish day school population in the country, roughly 13 percent of all children attend non-public schools, but only 1 percent of government education funds goes to those students.
In 2011, the OU’s nonpartisan public policy arm launched an advocacy network focused on delivering more public funding to non-public schools. In New York, that effort combined with others has helped increase the amount allocated by the legislature to non-public schools from $111 million in 2012 to $345 million in 2016.
The money has gone to a variety of programs eligible for government funding even though they are provided in parochial or other non-public settings: reimbursement for administering state exams, mandatory attendance-taking, textbooks, nursing services, computer software, security, teacher training.
Government funding for private schools isn’t new, but the OU says its approach is novel. The organization has built a network of schools and parent advocates, hired lobbyists and is pursuing a state-by-state strategy to get the job done. The OU’s Teach Advocacy Network now operates in six states with large concentrations of Jewish day schools.
“We are building a robust network of schools and parent bodies to work on affordability without sacrificing quality, and hiring top lobbyists to go to bat for our students,” said Neil Cohen, a co-chair of the OU’s Teach New York effort and chairman of the venture capital firm Emerald Development Managers. “We are totally shifting the paradigm of how this work is done.”
“This is about fairness and equity for all children,” said Maury Litwack, director of state political affairs for the OU Advocacy Center. “I can’t tell you how many times people assume we are attempting some money grab from the public schools or some violation of church-state separation only to learn that we have advocated for and passed dozens of programs that take nothing away from public education and are constitutionally sound.”
Meanwhile, the money is having a real impact. At Ben Porat Yosef, for example, government funding that will deliver $224 per student to every school in New Jersey this year to cover items like nursing, textbooks and security will result in more than $100,000 for Ben Porat Yosef. An expected $25-per-student increase in security funding is expected to bring in another $10,000 to the school.
In Florida, non-public schools are benefiting from tax credit incentives that allow corporations to donate to a scholarship fund for low-income students and receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit from the state. Florida awarded $559 million in tax credits for 2016-17, and 69 percent of the programs’ beneficiaries are in religious schools. That is translating into $13.8 million in scholarships to 2,405 students in 32 Jewish schools in the state this year. The scholarships are worth up to $5,886 per student.
Elsewhere in the country, schools are experimenting with flexible or capped tuition models aimed at giving relief to middle-income families. For example, in 2015 four Jewish day schools in New Jersey decided to use a $10 million gift to cap tuition at 18 percent of a family’s pre-tax income. Other schools, like Oakland Hebrew Day School in California, use flexible, sliding-scale tuition models.
“There is no silver bullet,” said Daniel Perla, director of financial vitality at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, a new umbrella organization serving nearly 400 Jewish day schools across the denominational spectrum in North America. “National funders have all come to realize that the only thing that will get us to more affordable schools is a whole series of small interventions.”
The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey has been working on a different approach to the tuition crisis. Several years ago, the federation helped create a cooperative that negotiates with vendors on behalf of area day schools, congregational schools and Jewish institutions. Using collective bargaining power, the Kehilla Cooperative has been able to negotiate reduced costs on everything from gas and electric bills to office supplies and credit card processing.
“On utilities alone, we have saved day schools over $600,000 since inception,” said federation CEO Jason Shames.
While philanthropy and innovative educational models have a role to play, many day school advocates say the game changer is bringing more public money into non-public schools — something President Donald Trump and his pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, support.
“I’m very much in favor of school choice,” Trump wrote in his book “Crippled America.”
The OU’s Fagin said he’d like to see more grassroots effort by day school parents petitioning their elected representatives.
“This issue cannot be resolved effectively unless yeshivot and day schools receive their fair share of government funding,” said Fagin, formerly an attorney and chairman of the law firm Proskauer Rose. “Our families pay taxes. They’re getting back pennies on the dollar compared to what others are receiving in the form of public education. From our perspective, this is an issue of civil rights. We are not going to be satisfied until there is actually a meaningful rollback on tuition.”