Addressing the tuition crisis


Part three in a series on the financing of yeshiva and day school tuition

By Malka Eisenberg

On the streets, at stores and in offices across the community, parents and grandparents discuss the tuition crisis. They call on schools to “open their books” for scrutiny, to hold democratic parent body elections for board members and to treat tuition payers as consumers, allowing them the choice of where money should be spent and expenses cut. One community member, Jonathan Isler, called for rallies and tuition boycotts.

“A 1997 study by the Avi Chai Foundation found that tuition and fees covered only 57 percent of Orthodox Jewish schools’ operating budgets,” said Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs at Agudath Israel of America.

Some goals of Agudath Israel include assisting schools in obtaining government grants and services, and helping parents afford tuition with vouchers and tax deductions. However, these benefits may not be effective in lowering tuition bills.

“It’s not as close a correlation as one would imagine,” said Zwiebel. He quoted New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as saying, “I’d love to help parents with tuition tax credits, but if the parent gets a thousand dollar tax benefit, the tuition would go up by $1,000.”

Zwiebel addressed these issues in a speech at a White House symposium convened by President Bush last Pesach. The April 24 gathering, entitled “The White House Summit on Inner City Children and Faith-based Schools” focused primarily on Catholic schools, more than 1,200 of which have closed nationwide in recent years.

“They wanted a Jewish perspective,” Zwiebel pointed out. He noted the higher cost of Jewish education with its dual curriculum, the struggle to pay tuition and fundraising efforts by schools to bridge the gap between costs and tuition. He cited grassroots donation programs such as Chicago’s Kehillah Fund, also known as Superfund, and the Avi Chai Foundation’s matching grants program. He also encouraged corporate donations, which could be helped by tax incentives in certain areas.

A different type of charity organization is one focused on a specific area. The Gruss Life Monument Foundation sets up programs to aid Jewish schoolteachers in New York by subsidizing health and life insurance, pensions, and awards programs.

“The relative success that the Jewish community has had in establishing programs of this nature reflect a broad recognition that Jewish schools are a precious communal asset that must command the support not only of tuition paying parents but also of the community at large,” asserted Zwiebel.

To combat governmental reluctance or inability to relieve high tuition costs, we must ask what we as a community can do to alleviate the tuition crisis, he said. He also noted that there are many charity organizations aimed at helping parents deal with the financial pressure.

“We have to do a better job of reinforcing the message that Jewish education is crucial to survival, that wealthy philanthropists have a central role in Jewish education for the future of Jewish survival,” Zwiebel added.

Howie Beigelman of the Orthodox Union’s Institute of Public Affairs emphasized that payroll is the biggest expense for virtually every day school but energy and security costs are mounting. He noted that HALB has applied for and received a Homeland Security grant, “to improve the physical security of the school such as bullet proof glass, cement bollards and key card systems.” Other local schools, including Yeshiva of South Shore, have received similar allocations.

He also pointed out that “the Catholic schools in the mid-Atlantic region held a seminar with an energy consultant showing ways to save five to 10 percent on energy.’

“There’s no one silver bullet,” Beigelman said. “It takes the community coming together, philanthropy, government affairs, charity. If everybody works together we could solve the problem.”

If there were a philanthropic effort like Birthright, a similar connection to Jewish education, there would be a change in the Jewish community, he predicted.

“Of 115 active seniors from public school in Long Island NCSY, 13 are going to yeshiva and seminary in Israel,” reported Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, regional director of Long Island NCSY. “Twenty five kids from LINCSY applied and got accepted to Stern, YU or Touro. Ten to 15 a year could have been switched to yeshiva day school but opted not to. I did not encourage them to switch because of the prohibitive cost. It is one to two years in yeshiva day school versus a year of study in Israel and then YU, Stern, or Touro.”

When given the choice, he explained, one opts for a post-secondary religious education.

“I don’t know what the solution is yet,” admitted Rabbi Hershel Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere. “The yeshivas have to raise tuition to provide a high caliber, quality education in limudei kodesh and limudei chol.”

Rabbis, educators and ba’alei batim should seek solutions together, he said, because “we must not have people stop sending children to yeshiva.”

Rabbi Dovid Nojowitz, the national director of Torah Umesorah, noted that, “Tuition doubles every seven years; it’s obvious that parents can’t keep up.” He said that both parents and schools are squeezed by costs and stressed that government and philanthropy can help alleviate the problem.

“It’s very painful to see how parents are crushed by the burden,” he said.