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Sunday, September 15, 2019

 

Editor's note: Two errors have been highlighted by us regarding Yeshivat He'Atid. The article has been edited with those corrections in mind.

The biggest hurdle faced by those seeking to confront the “Yeshiva Tuition Crisis” is the lack of unity in the community most affected by the steadily rising costs of educating Jewish youngsters in Jewish schools, according to a professional advocate for fair government funding for New Jersey’s non-public school students.

Josh Caplan, executive director of Teach NJS, an educational advocacy organization affiliated with the Orthodox Union, whose group represents a collaboration of day schools, Jewish Federations, synagogues, lay leaders and the OU, participated in a panel discussion entitled, “The Yeshiva Tuition Crisis: Is There a Solution in Sight?” The program, sponsored by the Orthodox-Jewish Forum of Edison/Highland Park, was held at Congregation Etz Ahaim on Motzei Shabbat, March 3.

In addition to Caplan, the panel included Rabbi Tomer Ronen, head of school of Teaneck’s Yeshivat He’Atid, which was founded in part as an attempt to address the tuition crisis, and Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene, a Fair Lawn resident who has served as principal of several day schools, including the original Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy. He was among the founders of the SINAI Schools, the director of Jewish Educational Services for the UJA Federations of MetroWest and Northern NJ, president of the National Board of License for Teachers and Principals of Schools in North America and chairman of the Board of Educators Council of America.

All members of the panel acknowledged that while the tuition crisis is a real, ongoing problem, the good news is that an ever-increasing number of Jewish children are enrolled in full-time Jewish schools.

The quiet underbelly of that statistic lies in the details exposed by a survey conducted last year by Nishma Research, a sociological and marketing research firm that studies targeted segments of the Jewish community. The survey, entitled “Nishma Research of American Modern-Orthodox Jews,” found that “the exorbitant price of day-school education” is considered by 92 percent of the Modern Orthodox respondents to be the community’s greatest problem, and is driving 17 percent of them to consider “other schooling options.”

“It’s hurting our families and our communities. For some families, it is the single greatest motivator to limit the number of children they have,” said Caplan.

Admitting that there is no single solution to the tuition crisis, Rabbi Greene pointed out that many of the ideas that seemed promising in the past failed primarily because the community did not comply. These included the so-called “five percent solution,” which asked all community members to contribute five percent of their annual incomes to day schools, and NNJKids, which asked for donations to be pooled among several different day schools, including some sponsored by the Conservative movement.

“If we could get endowments for each of our schools, there would be enough sustainable income to keep tuitions low and offer scholarships,” said Rabbi Greene.

The best way to accomplish this, he said, would be for parents to lobby state governments to pass legislation allowing for tax credits. This plan would allow people to donate a portion of their taxes to tax-deductible organizations.

“If you owe $1,000 in taxes to the state of New Jersey, you could take part of that sum and donate it to a Jewish day school to be used for scholarships,” Rabbi Greene continued, noting that, 18 years ago, when Phoenix allowed a tax-credit plan, the local Jewish community assumed their day schools would reap between $2 and $3 million.

“The Phoenix Jewish schools saw $15-$20 million per year, and they have fewer schools than we do in Bergen County,” he said.

He admitted that convincing the New Jersey State Legislature to pass a bill allowing tax credits “will not be easy.” However, he said, with a concerted effort by a unified Jewish community, “it could be done.”

He recognized that, although the US Supreme Court has ruled that there is no church-state issue in taxpayers allocating their own tax dollars to religious schools, there are nonetheless fierce enemies of any plan permitting non-public schools to enjoy benefits, whether in the form of vouchers or tax credits.

A few years ago, he said, it was not only the teachers’ unions that put up a fight against tax credits, but also the virulently left-wing People for the American Way. It was also a contested issue with the Bergen County Jewish Community Relations Council, a division of the local Federation that deals with public policy issues and social advocacy. According to Rabbi Greene, the vote in the JCRC on supporting tax credits was tied.

“One more ‘yes’ vote and the Federation might have put its weight behind it, and that might have made the difference. We had the support of the Orthodox Union, but it wasn’t enough,” he said.

According to Dr. Greene, the only way a solution such as tax credits can gain traction is for community people “to band together and go out knocking on doors in support of it.”

“Everybody in the Jewish community has to contribute to day schools, just like the Jewish community did in the dessert for the Mishkan. In a very real sense, day schools are our Mishkan in the midbar of American culture,” he said.

While Rabbi Ronen did not disagree, he pointed out that, in his and Yeshivat He’Atid’s experience, parents determined to make day school tuition affordable could accomplish their goal. Seeds for the establishment of Yeshivat He’Atid were sown in 2008 in the face of the financial crisis that challenged many Bergen County Jewish families.

“The idea was to open a school with affordable tuition. I won’t say that affordability is the number-one issue at Yeshivat He’Atid, but almost,” said Rabbi Ronen, who assumed his position as head of school as “a challenge.”

The school opened in 2012 with the hope that 75 students would enroll. Instead, they had 116. Now, there are more than 370 students in grades pre-K through six, and enrollment for next year is projected at 450. Tuition, including all fees, is under $10,000.

The school uses what Rabbi Ronen called “the special-ed blended model.” All classes are divided into small groups of between five and six children. At any given time, one such group is working with the teacher while another is with the assistant teacher. A third group is involved in independent assignments, which will later be checked by the teacher, and the fourth group is engaged in computer-based educational programs.

He recognizes that some day schools cap the number of children per classroom at 15. The small group model at He’Atid allows each classroom to have more children, all of whom, he said, get individual attention.

“Because the teacher sits with the children in small groups, the teacher gets to know each child very well. We don’t need extra teachers for extra support or enrichment. Enrichment takes place inside the classroom every second of the day,” he said.

At its heart, the school is designed to stay within its budget. Most of its money comes in the form of tuition, amounting to almost $3.8 million. From this sum, the school allocates $65,000 in scholarships to those families that need it. [editor's note: Rav Ronen clarified to The Jewish Link the following: "We do not provide assistance out of our tuition dollars. We strongly believe that financial assistance is part of a community's obligations. We have an event once a year where we collect money specifically for scholarships. Last year, with the help of the community, we collected $65,000 and distributed an equal amount. Every family who requested assistance, received assistance," he said.]

The staff-tuition discount at Yeshivat He’Atid is a mere 10-15 percent, which Rabbi Ronen admitted looks small when compared to the usual 40-50 percent granted to teachers by most Jewish day schools. However, he said, because He’Atid’s tuition is much lower than the other schools’ (usually about $16,000), He’Atid teachers generally come out ahead.

The school’s administration is kept lean.

“We don’t have a lot of assistant principals or executive directors...” said Rabbi Ronen. [editor's note: Rav Ronen to The Jewish Link later that he has two assistant principals and a business office manager, and they all wear many hats and perform many roles.] “If we don’t have the dollar, we don’t spend the dollar.”

Caplan boiled down all the suggestions made by the panel to the same choices every business must confront: controlling costs, as He’Atid has managed to do, and raising revenues, as Rabbi Greene proposed.

“The ‘one-minute’ solution to the problem would be the establishment of endowments. If we had $60 billion in endowments for all day schools in the country, the problem would be solved. In New Jersey, we’d need $8.5 billion,” said Caplan. He admitted that was an “easy solution that we’re not even close to achieving.”

Rabbi Greene said this could be accomplished through insurance policies that parents could purchase and for which the school that is named as beneficiary would pay the premiums.

Another idea would be for parents to pool amounts of $1,000 each, which could be combined to form financially profitable portfolios that could be shared with the day schools.

“That would lead to an endowment,” said Rabbi Greene, adding that the problem would be convincing schools not to dip into the money up front.

“Most day schools don’t have the discipline to save unless they have the benefit of mega-donors,” he said.

Caplan argued that, minus large benefactors, the best way to raise money for day schools is to lobby government. In the past, this has netted day schools many benefits, most recently financial aid for safety issues.

A member of the audience who has been involved with this issue for almost 30 years, Josh Pruzansky, pointed out that, two years ago, the New Jersey State Legislature allocated $25 per child in non-public schools for safety precautions. That number then increased to $50 per child and is now $75.

“It’s nowhere near the $144 allotment per public school child, but it’s better than nothing,” said Pruzansky, who, in his capacity as state director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey and New Jersey regional director of the Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center, has lobbied in Trenton on behalf of many Jewish communal issues, including, of course, day schools.

He now serves as senior director of institutional advancement of the Shalom Torah Academy, a school in Morganville, New Jersey, which, like He’Atid, strives to keep tuition below $10,000.

Pruzansky expressed doubt that the Jewish community will ever be able to convince New Jersey lawmakers to approve either vouchers or tax credits.

Caplan stressed that, for meaningful government assistance for non-public schools, the community will need paid professional lobbyists as well as significant community action.

Another member of the audience argued that state and local governments could be “forced” to take day schools’ financial needs into consideration “if all current day school parents simply registered their children for public school.”

Pruzansky laughed. “The unions would love that. It would mean more jobs for the New Jersey Education Association, and, in New Jersey, the unions run the state,” he said.

In the end, all the educators on the panel and Pruzansky agreed there is no one solution to the tuition crisis because, as Caplan said, it is not a one-size-fits-all problem. Rather, the experts agreed, it will require a series of ideas, and, with the help of a unified community speaking with one voice—preferably that of a professional—progress towards the goal of affordable tuition can be realized.

Caplan invited those members of the community who want to make a difference on this issue to attend the kosher NJS Legislative Breakfast, scheduled for Sunday, April 15, at 9 a.m. at the Teaneck Marriott at Glenpointe. Many state and local elected politicians and leaders are expected. More information can be found by calling 201-836-3943 or emailing [email protected]

“Those who come will join us in advocating together for safer, stronger and more sustainable schools,” said Caplan. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

By Susan L. Rosenbluth, 

TheJewishVoiceAndOpinion.com