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Putting A Cap On Day School Tuitions
Mon, 05/20/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Dan Perla
Dan Perla

In the nearly two years that I have worked in the field of Jewish day school finance, no topic has generated more emotion or been the subject of more debate than the issue of Jewish day school affordability.

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper’s 2012 article on the moral costs of a Jewish day school placed the spotlight on communal tuition policies and the moral dilemma that the Jewish community faces from a tuition system that has transformed nearly half of participants from community contributors to charity recipients.

Gary Rosenblatt penned a thoughtful and sensitive profile of one New York family and its struggle to balance Jewish educational priorities with financial realities and lifestyle aspirations (“The Day School Dilemma,” May 3).

Both of these articles highlight the tuition plight of middle and upper middle-income families.

In the world of Jewish day school finance, “middle income” is typically defined as families with pre-tax incomes of $150,000-$300,000 and more. Within the United States, these families constitute the top 10 percent of all earners. Within the Jewish day school universe, top 10 percent is a dubious distinction. Most of these families are full tuition payers barely able to keep their heads above water. Often ineligible for or unwilling to apply for traditional tuition assistance, they wind up paying a very large percentage (often 30 percent or more) of their income in tuition order to send their children to a Jewish day school.

To address this tuition inequity as well as to improve retention of larger, middle-income families, The Avi Chai Foundation is embarking on a middle-income affordability pilot program. Based on a model recently adopted by the Solomon Schechter School of Greater Boston (, pilot schools would agree to cap tuition as a percent of pre-tax income for middle and upper income families. This would enable larger, middle-income families to anticipate their maximum future tuition obligations and confidently enroll their children in a Jewish day school year after year, regardless of the number of children. While both the income range and the percentage cap would vary slightly among schools, qualifying families would be expected to pay the lesser of full tuition or 15 percent of pre-tax income.

Let’s use the husband and wife profiled in Rosenblatt’s article as an example. They earn $200,000 and may eventually enroll all three of their children in a day school. With one child enrolled currently, they would be expected to pay the full $20,000 in tuition, since $20,000 is still less than 15 percent of their pre-tax income. However, when their second and third child enrolls in day school, their total tuition will be capped at $30,000 or 15 percent of their income.

While such a program may result in modestly lower tuition for a day school in the short term, Avi Chai hopes that such programs can, over a longer period of time, significantly improve retention of larger families and possibly spur enrollment of new families. If the latter turns out to be true, schools with empty seats could eventually see an increase in their net revenues.

Avi Chai is not the only foundation focused on the issue of middle-income affordability. Through the Jim Joseph Foundation’s (JJF) Los Angeles High School Affordability Initiative, more than 200 high school students of middle-income families have received meaningful tuition discounts. The schools participating in this program have committed to raise the necessary funds -- during the JJF grant period -- to continue the program for at least an additional six years. (The funding did not begin until the Los Angeles federation raised more than $4 million.) Other community-based middle-income affordability initiatives are occurring in places such as Montreal and MetroWest, N.J. Each of these communities has channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars to middle-income families and has done so through a process that does not require families to reveal so much about their personal finances.

Individual day schools are taking the bull by the horns as well. The Boston-based Maimonides School has announced a tuition cap program for the upcoming school year for certain grades. SAR High School in Riverdale just launched a program under which eligible high school students will receive a $2,000 tuition credit. As noted in a May 10 Letter to the Editor in The Jewish Week, Manhattan’s Beit Rabban is currently working out the details for a new middle income affordability initiative and is considering joining the Avi Chai pilot.

None of these programs, in and of themselves, will fully solve the issue of middle-income affordability. Jewish day schools will never be free and will almost always require families to make certain financial trade-offs. But the Jewish community must work hard to ensure that families whose earnings place them in the top 10 percent of the country don’t go broke in their own communities. I believe that this work is well underway.

Daniel Perla is program officer, day school finance, for the Avi Chai Foundation. 

Adam Dickter, Avi Chai, Dan Perla, Day School, Day school tuition, Gary Rosenblatt, Jewish life, Maimonides School, MetroWest, Montreal, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, yeshivas

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The only way that we can continue to pay for day school and make it available to every Jewish child is for the community at large to change their funding priorities. Organizations across the spectrum must fund schools directly. Each Jewish federation acrosss North America needs to commit that 70-80% of all their money will go directly to Jewish schools. Organizations such as the OU must commit 80% of every dollar from kashrut to funding schools directly. Otherwise we will loose an entire generation of Jewsih children. Seeking the government is wrong on many aspects, this is our problem, not the government's problem. Tuition vouchers have been talked about for 40 years and are still not widespread and are very bad public policy. There are so many things that are funded by various Jewish federations that while may have some value, but nevertheless, must be assessed in view of the priority to providing affordable, but not necessarily freee, Jewish day school education to every Jewish child in the country. Unless this discussion will take place and act now all other ideas will go nowhere.

There have long been been a multi-tier division of Jewish family and specifically their youth in the U.S. There are four main tiers. Tier 1 consists of children of high-earners or dual-income earners, with total income in excess of $200,000 (perhaps more required depending on location), enabling the family to make not merely tuition payments but significant supplemental contributies and charitable institutions. The parents in Tier 1 are easily identified in their synagogue communities as higher-status physicians, dentists, attorneys, accountants, journeyman financiers, business owners, dual-income moderate-income professionals, and heirs to substantial inherited wealth.

Tier 2 consists of youth who attend public schools because their parents cannot easily afford day schools or yeshiva and do not wish to accept charity and the lower social status it confers. Tier 2 parents are moderate-income professionals such as college professors, scientists, journalists, government-employed attorneys or accountants, mid-level corporate managers and businesspersons, and other professionals who enjoy relatively high social status in the community-at-large but not necessarily within the Jewish community.

Tier 3 consists of youth and their families who receive substantial tuition assistance to attend day schools or yeshiva. They accept their position as lower-status in return for that assistance unless they occupy positions of community leadership such as rabbis, teachers, or otherwise distinguished Jewish leaders.

Tier 4 consists if moderate-income youth and their families who simply have no ability to pay day school tuition and will not participate in the committed Jewish community in a very strong way; they may retain their self-image as Jews.

It goes without saying that there is a Tier 0 consisting of wealthy high-net-worth individuals, those possessing $10M in assets and up. But there is also a Tier 5 consisting of families with special needs children who cannot be educated in yeshiva or day school for under $50,000 annually per child.

The issue is that these children must also be sent to college and maybe professional school.

In effect Tiers 1 & 3 make up the bulk of the clientele of today's yeshivas and day schools.

The cost of bringing Tiers 2, 4, and 5 into the day school community would be staggering; probably $1B annually is only a start. A better estimate is $5B, were full participation to be achieved. An endowment to fund it would be $100B.

Elements of our community, recognizing this, have correctly concluded that only government has the ability to come up with this level of funding, and already does so for public school education. The problem is that funding of private schools by vouchers flies in the face of the values that are central to the heritage of this country -- in which generations if children have met those of other backgrounds in school and worshiped with their own communities on the weekends,

Moreover, the specter of "Balkanized" schools is troubling. Imagine, if you will, a large voucher-funded madrassa in every neighborhood. One has only to note the burgeoning number of mosques that have sprung up like mushrooms almost overnight. And, although Catholic schools no longer teach that "the Jews killed Jesus," vicious hate-ridden bigotry and invective cannot flourish quite as effectively in a pluralistic setting, that is, in public schools.

Charter schools have given a few communities Hebrew-language options. But while meeting the letter of the law they engender strong opposition for exactly the reasons they should in the U.S. where public school education has served as the backbone of our pluralistic society. It is foreseeable that Hebrew language charter schools will encounter barriers to further proliferation or will alternatively be held to strict standards to ensure they do not merely serve the purpose of stand-ins for voucher-funding of day schools or yeshivas.

The only practical solutions are emigration to Israel and encouraging Jewish youth who are able to do so to pursue, from an early age, high-paying career paths or to form dual-income families. Neither is a short-term solution. This is the source of the assimilation problem, and it is a thorny one. The rabbis teach that only 20% of the Jews living in Egypt elected to participate in the Exodus, and the proportion comprising Tiers 1 & 3 is probably not far off from that figure.

Our community Federation in Calgary, Canada runs a similar program for lower and lower middle income families (up to $100k in income). The Federation runs the subsidy/scholarship program for both schools (one Orthodox, the other community Hebrew school). There is a rate schedule that determines how much each family should pay towards day school tuition (for all the kids combined) based on income and the community day schools receive funding from the Federation to make up the difference

This program is excellent because it moves the challenge of subsidy allocation to a neutral-but-invested third-party and gives the overall community a real sense of the parents' and schools' funding needs.

Calgary has the advantage of being in the most (religious) private school-friendly jurisdiction in North America with a long-standing voucher system (the schools receive $5000+ per student in government education funding) and tuition is only ~$8000/year and largely tax-deductible. Despite government support and low tuition, Federation still has great difficulty funding this program.

Two words to solve the day school tuition crisis, not to mention the entire US quality of education crisis - SCHOOL. CHOICE.

Unfortunately, the non-observant Jewish community is vitrually the only voting bloc out there still opposed to it. Besides the teacher's union and their political cronies, of course. And there's quite a bit of overlap between the two groups.

I have talked to Catholic schools and a Christian school in California. They charge a lot less than we do. The high school in California charges 7,300 per year has 160 students. Perhaps we may want to stop talking to ourselves and start talking to others who do the same thing but have a different theology.

none of these solutions will work. what other product has doubled or service in price since the year 2001? not many...
vouchers and increased government assistance and increased student financial aid will just do to jewish day schools what the same thing did to college education between 1980 and 2010. look at the NY Times recent article on the return of public universities and the decilne of private colleges.
only a true public jewish educational system can alleviate this problem. the only places I know of that offer this are Israel and the UK. The UK jewish community is largely in a state of decline (as is the rest of the UK - the USA is not far behind). This leaves Israel.
It is NOT embarassing or wrong to make Aliya as a "tuition refugee". You would still be in a better place than the real refugees who made Aliyah to Israel over the last 50 years under even worse circumstances.

make aliya. Tuition in Israel costs next to nothing. This makes up for your reduced income. Unless you telecommute, in which case your income stays the same and your expenses go down...

A Hebrew charter school could be a possible answer.

results are being achieved.

Addressing the comment from 17:09 - Indeed, there have been a number of projects. Tuition grant programs eat money at a staggering pace. $10,000 per family for 100 families is $1 million dollars. Jim Joseph, and CJP's "Discover Day School" (among others) have ploughed millions into tuition support in the past 5 years. This money hasn't changed the world -- we still have the same challenges for Jewish continuity. But... these grants *have* changed the world for the families and children involved.

We need a few $100 million dollar checks.... (and all the other stuff too: meaningful cost controls, thoughtful schemes for tuition, great school leadership etc., etc, )

Great article! We should also spread the word that NJ Votes, a sub organization of the OU, is working hard to lower tuition through the political route (by getting more government funding). It is imperative that we all go out and vote, especially on this upcoming June 4 Primary Election, in order to show politicians that we the Jewish body are an important voting force. Once we do that - to the point of them relying on us in order to get elected (or re-elected) then we can solicit funding more easily. (And by funding I mean hundreds of thousands of dollars.)

Josh Pruzansky of the OU is spearheading this movement. Sammy Saka, the president of Hillel Yeshiva, in Ocean, NJ is also working relentlessly to convince community leaders from across state to get involved.

The article states: "In the world of Jewish day school finance, “middle income” is typically defined as families with pre-tax incomes of $150,000-$300,000 and more."

$150-$300K is NOT middle income in most of America, which is why many Jewish parents simply do not even consider Jewish education, subsidized or not. In the general economy, they are considered doing pretty well, but in the "world of Jewish Education" they are considered poor - and made to feel embarrassed at having to apply for assistance. For that reason alone, many simply don't bother.

That said, it is nice that Avi Chai and others are trying to do something about this. However, there is a long way yet to go.

We are one of those "middle income" families who struggle to pay tuition for our children, and it's hard. But my husband and I have also been involved in school leadership and finance for many years, and we know from first-hand experience that there is not an easy answer to this dilemma. It's important to remember when thinking about options like tuition caps that what you are capping is income, not costs -- and the money to run the school has to come from somewhere. Running a quality dual curriculum school costs money, and most day schools in this country are small and only have so many students over whom they can spread fixed costs like teachers, rent, insurance and maintenance. Families shelling out $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 per child per year in private school tuition have the right to expect a quality education in return for their money, so there is only so much you can cut on the cost side (though technology is beginning to offer some interesting possibilities on this front). So how do you make up the money you are losing by capping tuition for middle income families? Do you charge upper income families $45,000 a year when the cost to educate a child is only $18,000, effectively forcing some of your community to subsidize the remainder? Do you rely even more heavily on fundraising, when you know that your fundraising staff and volunteers already struggle to meet their current yearly targets? And thinking as a parent rather than a policymaker, if it costs (let's say) $18,000 a year to educate my child and I CAN pay it, albeit by making sacrifices in my standard of living to do so, is it okay for me to ask someone else to pay part of it instead? Because the money has to come from somewhere, and if it doesn't come from me, it will have to come from someone else in my community.

Before talking about a solution, it's worth noting how the Avi Chai Foundation has shifted it's own goal posts. In 2001, the foundation commissioned a study called "Talking Dollars and Sense about Jewish Education" by Jack Wertheimer. A main goal of that study was to figure out how to seriously increase day school enrollment. To quote one of the summary statements of that study, "Based on an estimate that it costs $10,000 to deliver a day school education to each student, the system expends $2 billion a year to educate its 200,000 pupils. Thus the goal of increasing day school enrollment by 100,000 students would translate into an additional $1 billion expense annually." In the 12 years since that study, the assumed cost of day school has doubled to $20,000 and the Avi Chai Foundation is now focused on keeping families enrolled in day school with a vague hope that perhaps such a tuition policy change might lead to an unspecified increase in day school enrollment. The goal of a sizable increase in day school enrollment was unrealistic then and it's barely mentioned now.
Instead of talking about how much individual families should pay, why not go back to the "Dollars and Sense" structure and talk about the total cost of day school education. It seems like it's now over $4 billion a year. Where should that money come from? I assume the Avi Chai foundation is financially seeding the current initiative, but they are spending down their endowment. If others step forward, what does that mean for other types of Jewish charity? Already, what does it mean for Jewish charity if "middle class" families earning $150K-300K per year become charity recipients in the Jewish community (as is required to subsidize their tuition).

Informative and timely article but how do you anticipate offsetting these tuition caps? These schools need to attract quality teachers and salaries will only continue to increase- as they should as will general operating expenses. How do you balance this without putting schools in the red or hoping for increased donations?

A good way to start might be to ask schools to roll back certain expenses. A state-of-the-art computer lab may make the school look good in the eyes of some and may attract certain students, but is that expense really necessary if it will bump up tuition for everyone?

I assume that for a family to qualify for the tuition cap, they would have to disclose financial/tax information. Will middle income families be any more willing to do that than they are under the current financial aid system?

Been hearing about Avi Chai, OU and YU projects for a number of years already. While the public can't and doesn't expect results over night, isn't it time it saw some initiatives put in place already?