Monday, February 24, 2020

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Well-meaning though they may be, the ideas put forth by Jonathan Lamm (“What’s Wrong With Yeshiva Week?,” January 9, 2020) are not viable solutions to the yeshiva tuition crisis. Changing the dates of the winter yeshiva break is a non-starter for all the reasons he himself states. Tax bracket-tiered tuition and capping tuition does work in a few communities where philanthropists create endowments. Many viable ideas have been put forth but have failed, not because they are not sustainable, but because the day school community is unwilling to follow through.

If all charitable giving were directed to the day schools, and if everyone would donate 5% of their net worth in their wills to a day school, the problem would be ameliorated. Neither of these suggestions has caught on. UJA supports day schools in many communities. Granted that we have many day schools and yeshivot in our area, and UJA used to be more generous in their support; nevertheless, most members of the Orthodox community studiously avoid involvement with our local federations. You have to be in it to win it. If we are not around the table when priorities are set, we have only ourselves to blame. Non-day school people cannot be expected to support our schools if we do not reciprocate. We have the ability to drive change there, but to do that, we need to invest time and energy, something we have not been able or willing to do.

I have written about this topic for several decades, and unfortunately, all I witness is more hand wringing and grumbling. Despite the high median income level of many in Bergen County, not everyone is on that level. It is expensive to be Orthodox. Grandparents do help out, but as much as we might like it, we cannot tell them to subsidize their grandchildren’s tuition instead of taking them away for Pesach or paying for summer camp.

There are three viable solutions that do not cost money and will generate funds to lower tuition costs and/or provide scholarships. Philanthropic investing, a luxury tax and tuition tax credits. If I invest $10,000, I will not get as good a return on my investment as someone who invests $100,000 or $1,000,000. We have many talented and successful investors and high finance professionals in our community. They commonly bundle investments to get the highest yields. If, and this is a big if, they will be willing to share a few percentage points from their earnings to establish an endowment fund for day schools, it could yield a great deal of money over time. This was proposed a decade ago and I had a major boutique investor from a well-known Wall Street firm prepared to engage in this process. Things were looking up until he decided that he did not want to mix philanthropy with business.

We are fortunate to have many eating establishments in our area. Many families from out of our area also eat out here. No matter where you go, it is not cheap for a large family to eat out. Most eateries are successful. If we impose a 1% day school tax on every meal served, it will generate substantial funds. The mechanics can easily be worked out. A steakhouse tab of $100 will cost $101. Multiply that by the number of meals served at our restaurants. Do the math.

Seventeen states currently have scholarship tax credit programs. These programs allow individuals and corporations to allocate a portion of their owed state taxes to private nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations that issue scholarships to K-12 students. In other words, individuals and corporations can designate a portion of their state taxes that they are paying anyway to go to a 501(c)3 organization set up to provide scholarships to day schools. All that is needed is for day school parents to lobby their state legislators to introduce and pass a bill to that effect. We have the legislative clout and if we partner with other private and parochial schools, like the Catholic school system, and exert pressure on Trenton with rallies and busloads of parents and children descending on Trenton, it is doable and will yield millions of dollars annually. Granted, there are those who will object on various grounds, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this does not violate any church-state issue.

What is needed is action, not complaining.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene
Fair Lawn