A financially and morally sustainable model for day school tuition

There is a lot of handwringing these days about whether the rising costs of Jewish day schools are sustainable. The discussion has been about money, but this misses the point: The largest costs of day school tuition are not financial but moral, and the key to solving the financial dilemma is to address the moral problem.

• Parents take second jobs, or work longer hours, that deprive them of almost all weekday contact with their children.

• Nearly half of households are transformedfrom community contributors to charity recipients.

• Children aspiring to intellectual, creative or service work, such as teaching, are told that these are not options because they will not produce enough money for a committed Jewish lifestyle.

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Many of the moral challenges come not from the amount that families must pay but from the system that determines the amount. Under the current financial-aid system, families have no guarantee of how they will be affected by tuition hikes or whether the school will take account of a job loss or extra income from a second job. Unable to plan, and chronically dependent on the decisions of others, they are deprived of economic dignity.

Furthermore, financial-aid applications require families to state their expenses in often humiliating detail, so that an anonymous committee can sit in judgment.

Yes, the price of poverty is often loss of privacy and dignity. But these are evils; they must be minimized. The current system maximizes these evils by forcing otherwise self-supporting, even wealthy families to apply for charity because “full tuition” is unaffordable even for many households earning more than $200,000 per year.

A model like that of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston offers great potential. Put simply, here’s how it might work: Basic tuition is a fixed percentage of gross income set at approximately the percentage that the current financial aid process tends to charge middle-income families. High-income families can choose to pay a fixed amount, approximately what is now called “full tuition,” in order to lower their tuition, and families unable to pay the fixed percentage could, as now, apply for financial aid.

This model corrects many current deficiencies:

• It makes the tuition-setting process transparent and predictable for many more families.

• It moves many middle-class families off the charity rolls and minimizes the schools’ intrusion into their affairs.

• It defines day school education as a public good to be communally supported instead of an individual good privately purchased.

• It makes clear that the rich, even when they pay the maximum tuition, are assessed a lower percentage of their income than the middle class.

Families that now avoid day school because of the uncertainties and indignities of the financial aid process may now enroll. Wealthier families may donate significantly more when they see their tuition payments as reflecting a discount. Administrators will have a much clearer sense of revenues, and the school community will be more accountable for designing the school so that it remains within the financial ambit of its constituency.

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper
is dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership and teaches rabbinic literature at Gann Academy in Waltham, Mass. This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.