It’s been an exhausting four year journey from angry yeshiva parent to activist to angry yeshiva parent and back to activist. Thankfully, my efforts have culminated in viable solutions I am proud to share with people today.
When I began my campaign for tuition reform my primary goal was to find a way of making yeshiva tuition affordable to all of us who value the importance of a Jewish education for our children. Most of us realize that a proper Jewish education for our children is an expensive proposition, but is also the only option as opposed to the available education offered by our local school districts. Is there a possibility to get the State of New York to pay for the secular portions of our children’s private school education? Can they supply teachers and educators for math, science, music, art, and all other subjects, and have those teachers come to our schools to teach? Since they already come into our yeshiva buildings for special education, why not build on that precedent that was set years ago? Why can’t the school districts pay the yeshiva an equivalent amount that they already spend per student on a public school education? After all, they pay the same school taxes but don’t use the services. Are there not any legal remedies that can be pursued by some of the leading and respected lawyers within our community that can break new ground and obtain more government aid? Is there a reason why we all continue to sit back and accept the universal answer of “it can’t be done”? I’m not even going to begin to outline the argument as to why this is so crucial. We all know the obvious pain and suffering cases, the “open your books” argument, and the quality of education discussion. There is no need to outline the details of those arguments as they fall on deaf ears to those who are supposed to act on those issues. So where do we go from here? I will detail my vision on how to solve these problems and rattle the cage of the status quo which I think we all can agree must be changed. As an institution it is easy to say no and to be content with the existing flawed and broken system and structure. However, when it comes to rebuilding a broken and unaffordable system, we must be open to creative, groundbreaking, and necessary steps to ensure the viability of a system of education which we all believe must be affordable and sustainable.
Long Term: Political Solution
Bureaucratic government is an ever lingering problem that makes it difficult to accomplish political gains. To pass legislation for the benefit of the people involves a united and full court press on politicians who can effect change. Whether those in office now or future elected officials, it must be clear that their constituents are demanding action. When I was lobbying for change on my own a number of years ago, I was able to secure meetings with many local and state officials whom all asked the same question: “Do you have any rabbinical support behind your proposals?” My greatest wish was to be able to say “yes”! What is painfully clear, is that political figures will listen to people that are in positions of power and leadership. What is the obvious conclusion? We need our rabbinical leadership to step up to the plate, and unite for a common cause and lead the charge. They must blaze a united path to every elected official and together pressure them to address the concept of government intervention and aid to our private school community. We need government aid in the form of money, grants, subsidies, tax credits, lunch programs, security, physical education, art, music, and all subject areas. Not just yeshiva, but all private schools. This at minimum must involve not just our own rabbis, but on a larger scale religious leaders across all faiths. An article entitled “Cardinal Says U.S. Should Aid Catholic Education” was run in Newsday last week. Has any religious leader reached out to him to help? How many private school students are in the State of New York? How many parents, grandparents, and voters does that represent? If politicians are not receptive to helping, we must field our own candidates to run against them. You are either with us or against us. This charge must be led now. Local rabbis should organize and call a conference to form a lobbying committee and begin the process with a united front. They can’t continue and sit by and wait for someone else to do it. They can’t continue to ignore it, or we will continue to lose faith in those who don’t lead.
Which of our rabbis will step up and accept these challenges? There is now one of the largest problems facing our communities today.
Short Term: Macro Solutions
The centralization of expenses and power by numbers must be implemented. On a large scale, all employees of every yeshiva must join and become a member of a central organization. Existing organizations such as the Orthodox Union (OU) should be viewed as potential partners, and in the absence of a suitable partner an organization called “United Organization of Yeshiva Employees” (UOYE) should be formed. As a large group they can jointly purchase all of the necessary services, such as health insurance, life insurance, and prescription drug coverage. Each employee will remain an independent employee of their respective school, but as a member of this “organization” bulk discounts and centralizing and streamlining a process being replicated at hundreds of schools across the state will be implemented. This organization can also centralize billing, purchasing, food services, security, maintenance, and custodial services. All of these should be put out for bidding and allow companies to compete for the business. This will allow the respective schools to free up resources that are dedicated to those activities, thereby cutting costs and for these services to be obtained at a substantial discount.
Which of our rabbis will step up and accept this challenge?
The elimination of the discriminatory, embarrassing, and inappropriate scholarship process must be changed. The judging by friends and neighbors of one’s financial situation is an unacceptable practice that must be altered to create a fair and just method of distribution of funds to those truly in need. The answer is a centralized not for profit scholarship organization that handles all New York State scholarship requests and distributes money directly to the school on behalf of the needy family. This organization will handle scholarship applications and the qualification process needed to ensure that there is a fair and equitable system for the needy. There will be no more scholarship dinners by the individual schools, or concerns as to how the money is to be used. The donations will be deposited directly with this central not for profit organization on a tax deductible basis. We can refer to another recent Newsday article referring to “The Tomorrow’s Hope Foundation” set up by our Catholic brethren. It is essentially implementing this exact solution for Catholic schools and raising millions of dollars. The board consists of Lewis Ranieri (former chairman of Computer Associates), Peter Quick (former president of the American Stock Exchange), former Senator Alfonse D’Amato, and former Rep. Rick Lazio. The organization raises funds through direct mail, dinners, and many other events with all scholarship recipients assessed with respect and confidentiality. Are there not any Jewish business owners and political leaders that can put together such an organization for Jewish education? Consider this a challenge to those of you who are in a position to help.
After an extensive analysis of the tuition crisis a few years ago by the OU (triggered by my previous article), one of the conclusions reached was for grandparents to help pay the cost of their grandchildren’s education. This of course is a lovely idea, but one without much merit. It should not be the responsibility of those who have suffered through this process to educate their children, to now have to continue this struggle instead of enjoying their retirement and golden years. We need to have a fundamental restructuring of the basic foundation of how tuition is charged, and not just throw more money to help perpetuate a system of failure and injustice. By failure I simply mean a broken and wasteful bureaucracy without transparency or accountability. There is a solution to this problem: The majority of those setting policy and board members of our schools are non salaried volunteer parents with a few more dollars than the rest of us. How did they assume positions of power and policy setting in our schools? Did they submit resumes with their qualifications? Are these the best suited leaders to determine our children’s educational strategy and to manage our financial affairs? While we respect their dedication and admire their work ethic, our positions of authority are not for sale. A large donation of $100,000 is given, in turn purchasing a board seat, in turn setting bad policy, which will then chase away 30 students and will cost the school $300,000 in lost revenue at $10,000 per student. This represents a net loss of $200,000 to the school. The flip side is, a qualified individual who is elected to a leadership position, who sets the right policies and attracts 30 students, $300,000 in revenue is then added with a $300,000 net gain. The bottom line is: We as parents need to take back our schools! Every school board member, board of education member, and decision and policy maker is voted on in a school board election, they campaign on a platform, and are elected by the parent body and tuition paying parents. There is a reason our public schools are run in a public form with all board meetings held, open to the community: It is the only correct way to do it. We live in a democracy, but our schools are not run like one. We need to have this become a democratic process, functioning in an open forum with full transparency. This by nature takes care of the “open your books” argument. It becomes a public budget voted on by all the parents in a general election. Have your candidate run on an “open you books platform” and I assure you they will win.
Who among us will step up and accept this challenge?
The entire structure of how tuition is calculated needs to be overhauled. A new voluntary system that eliminates scholarships and creates an affordable environment needs to be established. The answer can vary by school or by community, and would allow legitimate need to be determined on a strictly voluntary basis. The school will set up a two tier tuition schedule with a Gold and Silver Tier. The Gold Tier will be the existing tuition schedule or slightly higher, and the Silver Tier will be 25% less than the full tuition. The Gold Tier parents will be entitled to various perks and benefits, including being the only people permitted to attend the annual school dinner (no longer the scholarship dinner, as scholarships will be eliminated), to have the monetary difference between the Gold and Silver package be tax deductable, front seats at all school sporting events, golf outings and various other perks that can be initiated to create a “country club” atmosphere. Those that can afford the Gold Tier and want to be part of an exclusive parents club will pay the higher rate and many people will stretch to pay as they will want to be included. Those that can’t afford will be part of the Silver Tier package at a 25% discount. There will be no impact on the children as there will be no educational benefits including preferential class placement or teacher selection. A mailing or plaque ceremony will also be held to “honor” those who have agreed to shoulder more of the tuition burden. This new structure will become a magnet to attracting additional students, and the volume increase of students will compensate for the lower tuition the Silver Tier parents are paying. It’s a simple mathematical equation that ignites competition and allows the free market to take hold in the system. Schools can be forced to compete on price, thereby regulating expenses and better managing their finances. It’s the free market economy without collusion, or a cartel like mentality.
What recourse do we have as parents if this essay fails to be a catalyst for change, or if our leaders continue to fail us? Surprisingly if we unite we have tremendous power and strength in numbers. To begin with, we can hold large demonstrations and rallies for tuition relief and reform which will generate publicity and media attention. This will pressure and force the rabbinical leadership to join the cause thereby ensuring political leaders to take notice. If that fails we can lead a revolt against the establishment by initiating a “Tuition Strike.” Nobody pays anything until the school closes down or its leadership institutes the suggested reforms. There can be rolling strikes from school to school or a collaborative effort against multiple schools. We can also organize groups of 25 families that begin to shop for bulk discounts at other schools and move as groups to where we can get the best rate. Why shouldn’t we apply our traditional way of “shopping” to how we pay for education? Of course the final push if all else fails, is the large scale movement to public schools, thousands of students at a time, which will then force the state to work something out with the yeshivas or simply flood the schools with our own kids to eliminate the issue of the “public school environment.” This would be a drastic measure, but necessary to cure a terrible disease that is killing us all financially.
There is no single answer that will solve the cost of the educational dilemma, but laid out in this manifesto is a multi-pronged approach involving various collaborative efforts. They must all ultimately be done, however something has to begin to take shape now. It is not supposed to be through the efforts of myself as an individual that this process begins, but through our established leaders that were assigned the task of leading. They also need to collectively unite for this cause or they should resign in favor of those who can solve the most pressing of problems. We are a brilliant people who have survived and continue to endure tragedies, discrimination, and injustices over thousands of years. We have reached positions of influence and power that are the envy of the world in fields of medicine, law, finance, science, and government. Are we to believe that we have lost the ability to address the basic sources of our achievements and the ability to provide our children with an education?
(Written By: Jonathan Isler for the Five Towns Jewish Times)