Is Tuition the Problem?
The many “crises” of our day are in large part due to the exponential growth of our Klal, kein yirbu. Many of the calculations and methods that previously worked for the masses have become archaic. There was a time when mosdos (educational institutions) operated on a budget of $500,000 per year. Today, as many administrators will emphatically point out, the average yeshiva will forecast a budget five to ten times that amount. Additionally, other major costs of religious society for an average family are daunting: weddings, seminary, kollel support, Pesach costs, health care, etc…. It is apparent that we do not have a tuition crisis as much as we are experiencing a financial crisis! The unavoidable expenses of living as a Torah Jew in the twenty-first century are overwhelming. Large families bring high costs and tremendous financial outlays. But above all expenditures, a great percentage or perhaps the largest portion of a working man’s annual salary will go towards his children’s education. And therein lays our problem. Our cost of living is simply too expensive.
The Rat Race
Our schools are valiantly doing the job of accomplishing more with less. Sadly though, the average Joe cannot pay his dizzying bills, and to him, irrespective of the actual cost of educating his child, tuition is the makeh bepatish – the final straw. Many parents cannot keep pace with rising expenses. This winter, heating bills are expected to double in price. So far, the early part of winter has been unseasonably warm. Yet, we can venture to guess that few are running to their children’s yeshivos to catch up on their tuition bills with this “extra money.” Money has become so tight that if it is not being allocated for heat, our master-juggler baal habayis is paying off another debt, such as the rising home equity credit line that he took out to make a chasuna for a child, or for the home addition for his growing mishpacha (or both).
For a family that operates within tight financial constraints, inflation forces the serious dilemma of “how can we make ends meet?” Something has to give. Fixed expenditures such as the mortgage, rent, and utilities will not be ignored for fear of cut-off or foreclosure. Food and clothing are absolute essentials. So once again, we are looking squarely in the face of our community yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs to absorb this burden. Unfairly, yes; but reality, nonetheless.
The question is often posed, are schools being administered responsibly? Overwhelmingly, the answer is yes. Some have suggested that professional comptrollers or accounting experts be brought in to audit the schools’ finances. Brief, unscientific research shows that, absent evidence of malfeasance, professionals are already very much involved. Furthermore, many renowned institutions today are being managed by well known askanim and titans of business. Additionally, government funding requires mosdos to comply with regulations. On the whole, yeshivos have become very creative and entrepreneurial in finding ways to close their budget gaps.
To an honest and realistic person, our school administrator knows his business very well. He has been successful in steering the ship through very choppy waters. This same executive director or administrator has become so talented at balancing the budget, his skills match those of any corporate CFO. The fact that he stays at the yeshiva is in itself real mesiras nefesh.
Respected administrators will rightfully say that Rabbeim and teachers are even worse off; vacations are nonexistent, and salaries in some institutions are not being paid on time. Without the Gruss Foundations and dedicated individuals, life insurance would be non-existent. As Rabbi Moshe Sherer Z”TL often said, “Rabbeim and teachers are overworked and underpaid.” This is not the environment to attract and retain our most important workforce, the educators of our children. Our Rabbeim and teachers deserve the best, not the bare minimum.
In NYC 2007, large homes, Catskills residences, luxury automobiles, and mid-winter Orlando vacations are commonplace. In contrast, as a board member of a renowned community-based tzeddaka organization, Keren Aniyim, it is sad to report that among the tree-lines streets of our million dollar neighborhoods, multiple heart-breaking requests for desperate financial aid are common occurrence. Families are begging for assistance.
So let us return our focus to the struggling family. Imagine if a child rachmana litzlan has a comprehension problem or a learning disability that requires significant tutoring. The emotional stress on parents is exhausting, compounded by an inability to pay huge tuition obligations and many other debts, and families are in real trouble. This burden can – and often does – lead to significant shalom bayis problems and other socio-economic issues, and we now have an agenda full of crisis conferences.
Furthermore, after exhaustingly paying multiples of thousands of dollars in tuition and still finding himself terminally in arrears, a downtrodden layman parent must be made to feel that he is appreciated and not abandoned. At all costs, we must spare his children the indignity of the dreaded “no entrance card.” On the whole, the mesiras nefesh of our average parents to faithfully pay what they can legitimately afford to, places them on equal footing with the mesiras nefesh of the mosad. Parents are not shirking their duty.
Parents have heroically accepted financial hardships to provide the best for their kids, and that certainly includes education. Both fathers and mothers are working full-time to put bread on the table. Parents are already overextended. Rising tuition commitments become back-breaking for some. Tuition contract increases, mandatory annual dinner obligations, and the random everyday extras, such as class trips, compound this unsettling process. Without a doubt, school operating costs are sky rocketing, but to our Joe, who has not gotten a raise this year, his feeling is one of helplessness.
It is clearly apparent that the yeshiva is not living in a vacuum and clearly understands the financial strain on parents. Unless we are dealing in an extreme situation, yeshivos are begrudgingly accommodating the financial realities of parents every day, though with negative consequences: a small strain in the relationship. The precious partnership between home and school slowly becomes frayed and disintegrates. The yeshiva has undeservingly become yet another bill collector. Children intuitively sense this estrangement.
In the best of circumstances, school and parents must be on the same page at all times. Financial issues have been allowed to encroach on this relationship, and this is unacceptable.
A Failure to Communicate
Problem: An obvious disconnect is occurring between school and home. Many parents do not comprehend their role in the school budget. It is also apparent that they do not understand the method of individual tuition bills or the formula of government funding. Impossible as it may be, parents fail to recognize that they are the significant financial underwriter in the business of education. This lack of clarity culminates with questions like, “How much does it really cost to educate a child? Are ‘their’ numbers accurate, and do ‘they’ really need ‘my’ maaser money?” Parents are apprehensive because, as it is, they are buckling under the intense pressure of paying what they already do.
Solution: Select philanthropic families have always risen to the challenges faced by our mosdos, and their benevolence alleviates a tremendous burden. Average parents, though, must be made to know that their largesse and personal involvement will also be of significance.
Yeshivos have the obligation to educate their parent bodies to the inner workings of a school budget. Regardless of whether the desire is there, parents are obligated to be amenable and responsive to stark realities. Mandatory financial open houses have been suggested, to educate parents regarding the structure of a school budget and their primary role in it. Convention round tables, focus groups, school executives and parents reveal that financial transparency is vital to mutual understanding and common ground. Our mosdos are worth this effort. [Only then this essential partnership can succeed.]
A Change in the Status Quo
Problem: It appears that the haves are being forced to pick up the slack for the have-nots. A segment of parents pay the full tuition that is asked, while a large segment are unable to do so. Large kollel and chinuch families are our greatest source of nachas, but how can these essential families be expected to positively contribute in a meaningful financial way? The current recipe does not bode well for financial stability in any business model. Yeshivos are clearly operating under difficult conditions. How can we convince parents who have the potential ability to pay a full tuition to actually make it a reality? Creative ideas and methods are required if we are to tackle this crisis.
Solutions: As parents surely know, tuition is not tax-deductible. In the current tax equation, parochial school students are at significant financial disadvantage vis-à-vis their public school counterparts. Hard-earned tax dollars are collected for a public school education that is simply not being received. If a percentage of these dollars qualified as a legitimate tax deduction, parents may potentially find the extra money for full tuition payment. Our families are being dealt an unfair hand, and the political climate may be ready to correct this inequity. Political allies must be enlisted. Regardless of political persuasion, school-tuition assistance must become our issue.
Additionally, greater concentration on endowments will produce much needed sources of funding. Secular institutions and universities place significant effort in reaching out to alumni and corporations. To a potential benefactor, there may be no sweeter sound in the world than Yiddishe kinder singing words of Torah. Our mosdos are positioned and ripe to receive philanthropic endowments, if only school directors had the time and resources to attract capable donors. Accounting experts and legal professionals must be consulted to advise and coordinate strategy for moving forward.
Parents, School, and the Klal Can Make the Difference
Government sponsored tuition relief is a prodigious issue worthy of our valuable resources and time. Shtadlanus and implementation will only come from a collective effort. What we must do at the outset is strongly support organizations like Agudath Israel, whose efforts to obtain school vouchers for parochial schools require the vocal public support of the unified masses. Anything less is self-defeating. An unprecedented window of opportunity has been opened by former Governor Pataki, and Governor Elliot Spitzer has indicated a willingness to explore other means of similar financial government assistance. Now is the time to seize the moment.
In 1961, the legendary Rabbi Moshe Sherer ZT”L testified before the U.S. Congress and President John F. Kennedy on behalf of government aid to parochial schools. That groundbreaking effort produced millions and millions of dollars for all yeshivos. The considerable needs of our thriving communities obligate us all to build on that legacy. One can be confident that Rabbi Sherer would have agreed that future government tuition assistance in the form of vouchers or tax credits is a natural outgrowth of his lifetime of labor on behalf of all tinokos shel beis rabban. Current challenges facing our institutions implore us to maximize this new potential. School leaders, askanim and regular Joes, who wax nostalgic for the days of old, must rise to this historic challenge and rally the collective klal behind this cause. Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel and other lay leaders need the unanimous, unwavering support of the united Jewish community to make our case in the halls of government.
All available political and governmental connections must be tapped into to ensure this effort. All school principals will acknowledge that hundreds of yeshivos, chadarim, and day schools across the religious spectrum benefit from Aguda’s ongoing efforts. What we can accomplish together now will dictate the future costs of chinuch on our children and grandchildren. To successfully fight this battle requires strength in numbers. Tuition relief is of such importance to our future that it must transcend the many different religious ideologies that otherwise divide us. For the sake of our children, the collective Orthodox community must unite and vote. Our astonishing growth is not reflected in our voting numbers, and in the age of computers the politicians have taken notice.
The Time Has Come
The driving spirit of the previous generation is waning. Our parents and grandparents constructed a new chinuch system from scratch. We seem to have lost the blueprints. Let us use our avos as a moral compass to regain our direction and focus. Use the past to forge our future. We must approach this crisis like our future depends on it, because it does.
(NOTE: This article was written, and submitted to Yeshivaworld by R’ Chatskel Bennett. It was previously published in the Jewish Observer)