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Friday, July 11, 2014

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The moral costs of Jewish day school

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Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

There is a lot of hand-wringing these days about whether the rising costs of Jewish day schools are sustainable. The discussion has been about money: How can we get more? How can we spend less? These questions miss the point. The largest costs of high day school tuition are not financial but moral, and the key to solving the financial dilemma is to address the moral problem.

What are the moral costs? Imagine that someone proposes a new Jewish practice that would have these consequences:

• Parents take second jobs, or work longer hours, that deprive them of almost all weekday contact with their children and leave them too exhausted to make Shabbat meaningful.

• Almost half of all households are transformed, for years, from community contributors to charity recipients.

• Children aspiring to intellectual, creative or service work, such as teaching (especially Torah) or other helping professions, are told that these are not options because they will not produce enough money to sustain a committed Jewish lifestyle.

• For economic reasons, families choose to have fewer children.

We would consider such a practice stunningly irresponsible. Yet these are real-life consequences of current day school tuition, even as the community seems committed to making day school education a requirement of serious Jewish child-rearing. How can we live with these consequences?

Furthermore, parents receiving day school financial aid have no guarantee, and often no idea, of how they will be affected by tuition hikes or whether the school will take account of a job loss, a new baby, a car’s breakdown – or, on the other hand, a gift from a parent or extra income from a second job. They cannot make future plans; they are chronically dependent on other people’s decisions. They are deprived of economic dignity. Indeed, financial aid applications require families to state their expenses in often-humiliating detail. They know a committee will sit in judgment of their priorities. A family that eats pasta all month so it can go to a movie risks an aid cut because it spends on entertainment. A family that uses an inheritance to visit yet-unseen relatives in Israel risks a cut because it can afford travel. 

The price of poverty is often the loss of privacy. This is an evil, which we should minimize. But the current system maximizes intrusions on privacy by forcing people who make five times the median income to apply for charity. Because the maximum tuition is unaffordable even for many families earning over $200,000 per year, they are forced into a financial aid system that requires complete financial disclosure.

The system also undermines the schools’ Jewish effectiveness. If our children lack Jewish passion, doesn’t that bespeak parental exhaustion? If they are materialistic, isn’t this related to their being told that their career paths are limited because they are poor? When they show signs of being “at risk,” doesn't this reflect lessened parental involvement? How can children internalize the core Jewish value of human dignity and the spiritual value of financial independence when their schools make them dependent?

Should we, therefore, undo our commitment – admittedly unprecedented in Jewish history and inconceivable in a less wealthy community – to broad-based day school education?  This is not necessary. We can address the moral issues and, in doing so, the financial issues as well. 

The Solomon Schechter School of Greater Boston has proposed a version of a model with great potential. In very simplified form, here is how it might work: tuition is set as either a fixed percentage of income – say, 15 per cent, with small adjustments for the number of children in the school – or a relatively high set amount per student, which high-income families can use if they wish to pay a lower percentage of their income. Families unable to pay even the 15 per cent could, as now, apply for financial aid.

This model corrects many of the current system’s moral deficiencies:

• It makes the tuition-setting process transparent and predictable.

• It moves many middle-class families off the rolls of those receiving financial aid.

• It defines day school education as a public good to be communally supported instead of an individual good, privately purchased.

• It makes clear that the rich, even when they pay the maximum tuition, are assessed a lower percentage of their income than the middle class.

There are, of course, gaps and imperfections. The new system does not (yet) address families with children in multiple schools or questions of what costs should and should not be included in tuition. It also excludes, consciously, family assets. Yes, this exclusion could allow families to “cheat” by hiding their true financial capacity, but counting all assets would provide a disincentive to saving – and, equally important, would have critical implications for privacy and dignity.

No system is without drawbacks, but the proposed system’s moral advantages are significant.

Still, let’s be practical: the model will and should be required to pass the budget test. It should provide our schools with revenues at least equal to those of the present system. In fact, the new model would meet or exceed the test, if only because the percentage of income required as tuition can be set so as to produce approximately the revenues that schools receive now. 

But the new system would have further budget advantages. Under the current system, schools operate under deeply flawed ideas about their revenues and their communities’ financial capacities. They have arbitrary “financial aid budgets” for what they consider tuition “subsidies.” They turn down students when these budgets are “spent” and they can no longer “afford” to take students paying less than full tuition. In fact, however, any student who pays a significant portion of gross family income will be contributing significantly more than the marginal cost of his or her education. In rejecting such students, schools forego revenues and profits. Moreover, notes Dan Perla of the AviChai Foundation, if a school sets tuition as a percentage of income during a recession, when costs rise faster than wages, it will realize rising revenues from the same percentage of income when times improve.

In addition, it is wholly reasonable to expect that the new system would change behavior. Families who do not consider day school under the current system, because of uncertainties or privacy concerns, may well consider it when they know how tuition payments will relate to their income and are required to submit only the first page of their income tax returns. Families with many children will be more likely to send them to day schools. Indeed, such families may grow larger over time. Wealthier and even middle-class families, who will no longer see their tuition payments as subsidizing their neighbours, may be more likely to donate. Families without children in the schools may also be more willing to donate if day school costs are presented as a communal obligation, not a commodity for purchase.

This new model requires elaboration and customization, but it can redirect the community’s conversation and efforts toward a model of day school financing that is both financially and morally sustainable.

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership and teaches rabbinic literature at Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, Mass.

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