Day School Funding if Done According to Jewish Tradition

A condensed version of this appears in Day School Tuition Should be Based on Income  (in the Forward).

 The Problem:

It is the time of year for my local Jewish paper to publish its annual article on how day school tuition is rising faster than inflation again this year (and kudos to them for keeping the issue alive). This year’s article included a quote from our only co-educational Jewish high school (also the largest in North America). Though years ago I attended that school, due to rising costs, (and the fact that we will have already paid 9 years of tuition at days school per kid by the time they reach there), I am not going to send my children to it. (The cultural effects of the concomitant polarization of the student body into many have-a-lots and a few have-nots, without  many have-somes due to these costs is also a factor.)  In the article, the Director of Education of that school asserts that

 … no child is turned away on financial grounds – assuming families are prepared to supply the requested documentation, including income tax forms, and that “parents are prepared to allocate an appropriate place for [tuition] in their family budget.”

Of course neither the school nor the Federation that funds 30% of the subsidies will make public their criteria for what an “appropriate place in the family budget”are. I do know that if you own your own home you will not qualify for any subsidy. Day school tuition for having another child in kindergarten is not taken into account. People have been asked to borrow against or spend their retirement savings. People struggle and give up many, many things that their friends and neighbors and certainly their colleagues at work take for granted to send their kids to day school ( new clothes, vacations that don’t involve camping or visiting friends and relatives, extra-curricular activities etc.) It is disrespectful to cast families who cannot make those often heart-wrenching sacrifices as basically not valuing Jewish education enough, which is what this terminology does. (Thanks to the CJN for publishing my letter  saying this).

It is sad demographic fact that the cost of day school is a big factor in the decision to have additional children (where are the alarm bells for those worried about continuity issues?). One example is written up in Day School Tuition as Birth Control (see also this piece by Sam Glaser or this by Michael Freund). From the standpoint of Jewish values it is not right that parents go through the difficulties described bravely by Debra Nussbaum Cohen in her Sisterhood article Sending My Children to Day School: It Shouldn’t be So Hard (see also one from the Forward by Shira Dicker , one by Shira Hirschman Weiss and from The Jewish Week on the OU perspective). Moreover it seems wrong that some parents have to go through the annual huge paperwork  and invasive  loss of privacy  to fill out their applications  and often feelings of shame, while others do not. (Forms are long and include questions like: how much a month do you spend on groceries? household supplies? childcare? home maintenance? heating?)

In another quote the same high school Director of Education noted in my local paper, that “tuition at TanenbaumCHAT has always been less expensive than at other private high schools”. Day schools should not be compared to other private schools. Other private schools are luxuries that predominantly wealthy or very upper middle class parents provide for their children because they desire services, facilities or attention beyond what is available in a public school setting and sometimes also desire is also to shield their children from interacting with kids who have higher needs and possibly more behaviour issues due to their socioeconomic status (whom public schools are obliged to educate). Because of the tuition structures and demographics, Jewish day schools tend to be better than average public schools. The primary purpose of day schools, though, is to provide a Jewish education to children. If there is a conflict between spending money on making sure that more children can afford to go and offering luxuries beyond what parents can expect from an above-average public school, then it is the education of more children that should win out.

The Proposal – Fair Share Tuition:

The problem is that day school is expensive, the primary cost being administrators and teacher’s salary and benefits. Like many jobs that serve the Jewish community, these are already not the best financial option for those who work in them, so there is no room to lower costs there. Most teachers themselves cannot afford the tuition for their kids without help (or a spouse with a higher paying job).

If there is a community need for educating as many Jewish children as possible, which should be the mandate of Jewish day schools, and the cost is large and beyond or almost beyond the reach of many then the financing model needs to be re-thought. While communities used to fund tuition subsidies at a higher rate than they do now, and there are many important steps being taken in planned giving and  super funds and other forms of community fundraising, a more fundamental change of approach is needed (in addition to increased overall funding from major Jewish community institutions). A chance remark by a friend lead me to think of this seriously. After a fundraising session for my daughter’s school she said,”If every parent paid the same percentage of their income that I am paying in tuition, we wouldn’t have to do this fundraising.” And why not? Not only is this method, income-based fees, used by most developed countries in the world to fund their public education systems (called  taxes), income-based fees are also used by many synagogues to determine dues. This funding method, discussed by the synagogue  and rabbinic arms of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstuctionist movements, is called Fair Share dues. Fair Share Dues are either based on a flat percentage of income, calculated from tax forms usually via the honours system (people usually do not submit their forms) or a sliding/progressive scale of income percentages. Below is a not-at-all-comprehensive list of some of these synagogues and their dues policies that I found in a quick web search. There are many more. An (old) report from the Reconstructionst movement suggest that there is no loss to financial security for synagogues who adopted Fair Share dues policies.

 If everyone had to fill out some form of financial disclosure, the process would become much less invasive as people would not stand for it. This would benefit everyone.

Moreover a Fair Share Tuition policy  fits with a long tradition in Judaism on how the community needs should be supported. When dealing with the question with the question of how much we are obligated to give, biblical and  rabbinic sources often quote percentages as opposed to specific amounts.  The Torah mentions several times when one is required to give a tenth (a ma’aser or a tithe) of one’s harvest to the Levites (Numbers 18:21-26; Leviticus 27:30-33 ; Deuteronomy 14:22–27) and also to the poor (Deuteronomy 26:12–15). The rabbis of the Talmud and later writings echo this (e.g. A person should give up to 1/5 (20%) of his possessions. That is praiseworthy.One-tenth (10%) is average. Shulchan Aruh, Yoreh Deah 249:7).

Perhaps surprisingly, Fair Share Tuition is actually advocated for in the  Shulchan Aruch, (Code of Jewish Law). Importantly, as noted by Yossi Prager of the Avi Chai Foundation the funding of Jewish education appears in the Shulchan Aruch not in Hilchot Tzedakah, the laws on giving charity, but in Hilchot Shutfim, the section that lists all of the communal services funded through kehillah (communal) taxes (e.g., gates to protect the city and the establishment of a synagogue).

The Shulchan Aruch says:

In a place in which the residents of a city establish among them a teacher, and the fathers of [all] the children cannot afford tuition, and the community will have to pay, the tax is levied based on financial means. Rema, Shulchan Aruch, (Choshen Mishpat 163:3) 

Prager points out from a review of rabbinic texts and historical Jewish communal practice until quite recently, that “the conclusion is inescapable: in the Jewish worldview, Jewish education is not a consumer good, like detergent, but a communal obligation.” It should be viewed,  as a “communal obligation independent of voluntary tzedakah”.

What are the downsides of such a policy? Making everyone supply even minimal financial information will turn some people off. (But of course we are already losing people who qualify for subsidies but choose not to apply or attend because of the invasive process). Also parents who currently make charitable donations to schools might see those donations become their income-based tuition payments and they would lose the kavod  (honour) of donating.

Even if day schools don’t adopt such a policy, it would be good to at least see them explain why they don’t.

Appendix: Shuls (Conservative, Reform, Orthodox,  Renewal, Reconsructionist and Independent) that use Fair Share Dues Policies

(from a quick web search there are many more)

Also used by the American Conference of Cantors  policy

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9 Responses to Day School Funding if Done According to Jewish Tradition

  1. This idea makes sense to me, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been considered more seriously to date. We recently began the journey of private Jewish education for our first (of two), and absolutely, cost was a major consideration.

    The other benefit I see to fair share tuition is that it allows for greater affordability at first, and potentially greater financial contribution later on, if your income rises.

    Of course, the inequity of publicly-funded Catholic school should also be addressed.

  2. Decemberbaby says:

    Thank you for this! Well-articulated (as usual) and necessary for everyone in our community to read and understand.

    When tuition is based on a percentage of income, how are large families accommodated? Do they end up paying the same percentage (thus reducing the per-child cost)? As someone staring down the barrel of three-kids-and-maybe-more-someday, we’d be spending the average family pre-tax income (I think, it might even be more) on day school tuition. Should there be a cap?

  3. Check my FB comment with the share … but since I am a shameless self-promoter, I will repeat my bon mot here:

    Your proposal is daring, logical, sensible and therefore a dead letter. Shame. 😦

  4. Elana says:

    I am not necessarily against this policy, but it does raise some automatic questions for me. The first that jumped to mind were:

    How would it work if one family with a combined income of $100,000 had 4 school-aged kids and another had 1? If the percentage to give was 10%, would a family with 5 school-aged kids be expected to pay 50% of their entire income to the school?

    How do you account for the fact that some of the poorest families are also those with the most children and, conversely, some of the richest families stop after having two children? Is it fair that the richest families subsidize (likely almost entirely) the poor families with 10 kids?

    • Both you and Decemberbaby raise a good point. I do think there should be a total family cap based on some percentage of income- so people could still afford to send multiple children to school, or that subsequent children would pay a smaller percentage than the previous ones.

      I do think that having large families of 6 or 10 children is a choice and a privilege and we should encourage people, via whatever policy there is, to be responsible both in terms of finances and in terms of insuring there is no child neglect, which is a danger in families with few resources and many children.

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