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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Editor’s Note: Last week, the Jewish Link published a piece by Rabbi Adam Englander, head of school at the Katz Hillel Day School of Boca Raton, called “How We Did It: Stable Tuition for Four Years and Now a $1000 Decrease.” Gershon Distenfeld felt compelled to share his views.

“There is no tuition crisis,” said the Yeshiva day school administrator I was talking to recently. This is something I’ve heard a lot recently, sentiments that haven’t been expressed to me so often since before the financial crisis.

Prior to 2008, we mostly heard from long-time members of our community about how it was impossible for there to be a tuition crisis when so many young families were buying large houses, driving late-model luxury cars and going on expensive vacations. The challenge back then was to convince people that there was also a great number of families who were struggling financially and just could not longer afford tuitions that were increasing at a seven-percent annualized rate for almost two decades.

Today, what I (and others) are hearing is totally different. Many (day school administrators and board members chief among them) are expressing skepticism that we have any sort of “tuition crisis” for a very simple reason. Parents, and especially the younger generation, are demonstrating time and again that price just doesn’t factor much (if at all) into their decision-making process.

Let me state at the outset that we are blessed to live in a community where we have so many wonderful choices of yeshiva day schools to send our children to. I always tell parents who are struggling with the decision of where to send their child to that they really can’t make a bad decision. All of our schools are top-notch educational institutions where love of Yiddishkeit and good middos are taught in the context of an overall solid Judaic-studies and secular education. I can honestly say that if any of the yeshiva day schools were the only one in town (which is often the case in “out of town” communities), I would happily send my children there.

I have no doubt that many parents feel that the educational/academic standards in the school they’ve chosen is far superior to those of the other schools. The problem is that for every parent feeling that School X is the best, there is likely a parent who strongly disagrees. There is simply no objective barometer of which school is best. One thing that can be measured objectively, however, is cost. The six local Modern Orthodox elementary schools range in price (all-in including fees) from less than $10k per child to over $18k per child. For a family with 3-4 kids, that’s a cumulative $250-300k spread in after-tax total cost before we even talk about high school.

One would think that with such a large gap, price would factor greatly into the decision-making process. But my own experience being heavy involved in several local day schools over the years, as well as discussions I’ve had with numerous day school professional and lay leaders, has been that there are two factors that are weighed most heavily by families.

By far the #1 factor is “hashkafa”. School Y is too far to the right, too far to the left, we want separate classes for boys/girls, we want mixed classes, we want our girls to learn Gemara, we don’t want our girls to learn Gemara etc. The #2 factor is social. This is where all of the kids on my block go, this is where my friends are sending their kids, etc.

In a vacuum, these are reasonable factors to consider when deciding between a selection of high-quality, well-respected schools. But when these are the top decision-making criteria for so many parents, the message all schools are getting is that these factors are more important to the consumers than the cost of tuition. And they react accordingly. The conclusion many have come to is that what we have here is not a tuition crisis, but an entitlement crisis. We all desire the freedom to choose precisely what we want but we just want someone else to pay for it.

The financial aid philosophy of all of our schools – while overall a wonderful communal effort – also exacerbates this problem. We began with the laudable idea that “no child should be refused a Jewish day school education for financial reasons.” Over time, however, this became an idea that “no child should be refused a Jewish education at the school of their choice for financial reasons.” While some families are choosing to spend an extra $250k of their own money to access a certain hashkafa or social circle, many others are effectively choosing to allow local donors or other tuition-paying parents to spend that money for them.

So maybe there really isn’t a tuition crisis at all? Maybe we are just a wealthy community with the luxury of having the “haves” subsidize the “have nots”?

I don’t think so. I think that parents in our community feel pressure to spend unquestionably on their children’s education. Whenever I talk to parents on the school open-house circuit, I hardly ever hear an indication that price is at all a factor in their decision. I think parents feel guilty if they consider costs in the equation, even though spending has been shown to have little correlation with educational outcomes. And I think religious belief in the value of Jewish education gives parents faith that somehow, everything will work out. But the God who gave us the Torah is also the God who gave us math, and the math says the situation is unsustainable.

The number of families on scholarship assistance has been steadily increasing, with the funding of those scholarships primarily being provided by fellow parents just a little bit up the income scale. Most families on scholarship are not saving anything for college and retirement, and presumably a good number of families who do pay full tuition are also doing so at the expense of saving for the future. This means that today’s tuition crisis will become tomorrow’s retirement crisis and our children’s student-loan crisis. Maybe we’ve managed to afford this lifestyle ourselves, but are we bringing our children up to believe that Orthodox Judaism is only for those in the top five percent of incomes?

As those in my camp continue to appeal to the boards and administrators of all schools to place affordability at the top of their agenda, there is another group of people who have to wake up and actually do something to help themselves. And that’s the parents. It may be in vogue to criticize boards and heads of schools for not doing enough, and there’s certainly a lot more they can and should be doing. But they are merely responding to the implicit message that parents send when selecting schools that cost just really isn’t a factor.

You the parents are the only ones who can force change. You can vote with your wallets. You can take price into account when choosing a school. You can choose to attend a school where you can afford to pay full price instead of one that will require you to accept financial assistance, even if its hashkafa is a bit too far to the right or left for your taste, or kids in your shul go to a different school. If you are a first-time parent hitting the open-house circuit this month, take the time to think about how paying for yeshiva day school education fits into your overall financial picture, including younger and future siblings. Many parents at open houses are concerned about whether their kids will get into the right high school or college, but I see much less thought given to how parents will pay for high school and college if they use every last dollar on elementary school.

In 2011, I was part of a group of local parents that founded Yeshivat He’Atid with the seemingly impossible goal of making high-quality yeshiva education affordable. Just five years later, the school has 300 students in grades Pre-K through fifth grade, just moved into a beautiful new building in the heart of Teaneck and had a cost-per-student for the 2015-16 academic year that was below their tuition of $9,350. When I and other concerned parents founded the school, we committed to deliver a high-quality education at $9,000 in 2012 dollars, increasing only with inflation, and without tacking on extra fees. There have been many times when we were tempted to spend more to accomplish some particular goal, but we always resisted, because we know how central affordability is to our mission and our constituents.

Parents of students at Yeshivat He’Atid are thrilled with the top-notch educational product, the innovative model, the talented faculty, the warm environment, the mission-driven community and yes, the $5,000-9,000 per student they are saving relative to other local alternatives.

At the same time, I recognize that Yeshivat He’Atid is not an option for many families for a variety of reasons. And to be honest, even in its stunning new facility, the school is limited in how many students it will be able to accept.

So if the only “affordable” school in Bergen County isn’t an option for you, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do. Speak to the lay and professional leaders of your school. Ask them what their long-term approach to affordability is. Don’t just accept freezing of tuition or smaller increases, because $15-18k is still unaffordable for too many and certainly won’t be an option for most of your grandchildren. Every school thinks they are the best option for your child and there’s nothing wrong with that. That doesn’t mean that affordability can’t be front and center in your school’s mission statement. There is plenty of evidence in the broader educational world that quality and cost have virtually no correlation in student outcomes – and Yeshivat He’Atid is living proof of this concept in the yeshiva day school world.

Affordability of Jewish education is not just about saving money. It’s about increasing the odds that our children will be able to send their children to yeshiva. It’s about giving dignity back to people who were resigned to being perennial scholarship applicants and now can hold their heads higher. It’s about creating a school with socioeconomic diversity that does not regard those whose parents are not high-income earners as recipients of charity. And in a time when tuition has been called the best form of birth control, it is literally about creating Jewish lives. Multiple families have told me that they opted to have another child after Yeshivat He’Atid opened because they can now afford that extra child.

There is no reason that we can’t continue to have many schools offering slightly different forms of education in our community, while making significant strides at each school towards meaningful tuition reduction. There is no reason that we can’t have an “affordable” day school in each and every Jewish community in North America. The only thing holding it back is the fact that you the parents have yet to really demand it.

It’s time to restart the conversation around affordability, and as a community (both locally and nationally), work to ensure that Modern Orthodox Jewish life remains accessible to our neighbors, our children and future generations.

By Gershon Distenfeld

 Gershon Distenfeld lives in Bergenfield. The opinions expressed above are his own and are not necessarily those of the organizations or institutions he is involved with.