Resolving The Day School Crisis: It Takes A Mishpocha

Special To The Jewish Week
Friday, October 23, 2009

Opinion Responding to families drowning in day school tuition bills, UJA-Federation of New York has proposed a bold plan to raise $300 million in endowments to expand scholarships. Can a massive undertaking like this actually succeed? A major day school endowment effort for New York is critical — and decades overdue. The day school tuition crisis is essentially an issue of middle-income affordability. If we do not substantially restructure the funding model for day schools, many of them will simply become schools for the wealthy and a small segment of lower-income families, with no “middle.” This does not serve the interests of the Jewish community. Moreover, if a plan like this can succeed in New York, which accounts for about Jewish Theological Seminary half the day schools in the nation, then it will go a long way toward ensuring the future of affordable day school education in the United States. Successful fundraising of this magnitude will require a fundamental rethinking of the way day schools view themselves. It will also mean that those tied to day schools at every level — from major philanthropic organizations to former parents and alumni of the schools — must step in and take part. First, it is important to get past the rescue fantasy. No one is swooping in to bail out day school education. In the face of ballooning government deficits and constitutional restrictions, significant taxpayer support is certainly not something we can count on. Leading Jewish philanthropists and philanthropic organizations can and must play a key role here, but this is just too big a problem for even the wealthiest players to take on alone. Next, understanding how to resolve the day school affordability crisis means accepting a basic reality: Jewish day schools are private schools. They are a special kind of private school—one that remains a Jewish communal responsibility because day school education is essential to ensuring that Judaism survives and thrives in this country. But they are private schools nonetheless. So, in the areas of leadership and fundraising, day schools need to act like private schools, or they simply will not achieve financial stability nor be able to provide adequate scholarships to a broad range of Jewish families. Look around at the nation’s most successful secular private independent schools and faith-based schools. Over decades, these schools have developed a self-sustaining system of financial resource development with comprehensive annual and endowment fundraising. The underpinning of this model is in three areas: Strong leadership: Led by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), private independent schools have focused tremendous time and resources on building strong, visionary boards of trustees whose members understand their primary role in ensuring financial stability for the institution through careful management and effective fundraising. These board members know well the unofficial motto of the NAIS: “Give, Get or Get off!” Professional-driven development: Private independent schools have invested heavily in fundraising infrastructure, including professional development staff, ongoing database management, alumni relations, marketing and more — all geared to building sustainable support for the institution. Culture of generosity: Private independent schools have developed a culture in which many of those who are touched by the institution feel privileged to give back, and support is carefully nurtured over generations within families. By and large, Jewish day schools are far behind their private independent school counterparts in adapting this model. With some notable exceptions, the vast majority of Jewish day schools have not developed long-term, strategic fundraising and fiscal management. In fact, most day schools simply lurch from one fiscal crisis to the next. It is ironic that day schools teach tzedakah, but most have done a lousy job of building a culture of giving back to the very schools that transformed all of these young lives. Incorporating the private school leadership and fundraising model into Jewish day schools will take coordinated leadership among the federation and major philanthropic organizations, vision, commitment, and major investment in leadership training, professional staff and other aspects of a fundraising infrastructure. With the help of federation, day schools must adapt to simultaneously tackling annual and endowment fundraising — thereby expanding scholarships today and securing tomorrow. And here is the most important point: Systematically changing the model of day school funding is going to take the whole mishpocha. And I mean everyone, including the alumni who first may be able to only give small gifts, setting the stage for future giving; parent, grandparents and other family members of current or past students; current and former board members who could leave a bequest for the school in their will; high-net worth families who can give significant annual and endowment gifts; and rabbis who can promote support for day school education from the pulpit and in the broader community. We are late getting into this game. (Just think of where the day school community would be had we started this 25 years ago?) But it is better to start this late rather than never. Permanently resolving day school affordability is going to take a massive investment of time, money and human resources at every level. But it can and must be done. The cost of leaving this unresolved is far greater to the Jewish community than what it will mean for each of us to dig in and do our part. Kim Hirsh is development officer with Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest, the planned giving and endowment arm of UJC of MetroWest NJ.

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