The Forward is doing a series on day schools…!

Naomi Zeveloff (at the Jewish Daily Forward) began a series this week on “Day School Solutions”… and I am very much heartened to see that it began with a school that did the impossible and unthinkable: slashed tuition in half.  As I read the piece about Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas, I kept waiting for the part where Zeveloff described the building imploding under its own weight or shrivelling up into a dessicated hulk and blowing away in the wind… but it did not happen.  Instead, as Zeveloff reported:

According to [Board President Eric] Kaseff, about 40% of the families donated at least $10,000 per student on top of tuition. Private donors from the community helped make up the difference, giving $40,000 in the first year of the program.

Some good old-fashioned belt tightening also helped close the gap in the school’s operating budget. For example, Hyman Brand now has one principal overseeing the entire school, rather than its former model of having separate lower, middle, and upper school principals.

The school is still operating at a deficit, but it’s about $100,000 per year, down from $300,000 to $400,000.

What’s more, the middle class seems to be coming back. In the first year of the program, enrollment jumped to 222 from 212. This school year, another 20 students enrolled. Most of them are new recruits, but there are a few returnees. According to Kaseff, parents are unanimous in their appraisal. “They said, ‘Before, I was on financial aid, but now you have turned me into a donor,’” Kaseff said.

(Side note: I am an avid listener to the Forward podcasts.  Having heard Naomi Zeveloff and listened to her voice resonating in my earbuds, it seemed almost rude to refer to her as “Zeveloff” in the paragraphs above, but a bit too cheeky and familiar to call her “Naomi” either… Podcast listeners, do you experience this as well?  Or do I just have a podcast crush?)

And now back to the tuition rant…

I am sure the naysayers (or more like the folks that regard yearly tuition hikes to be as natural as what a bear does in the woods) will be quicker than light to dismiss this seeming success story…  After all, they will say, HBHA is in Kansas.  It’s a small school.  222 kids!   It’s still is running a deficit…

But I wonder how long these naysayers will be able to continue to say “NAY!” when the Jewish middle class, who are the base and backbone of the Jewish community (and, I might add, its demographic anchor) are pummelled by economic hardship and tuition increases that far outstrip cost of living and inflation… Who will go to these schools when these families sadly conclude that their commitment cannot balance their chequebook?

And for those who have been through the subsidy-seeking process, imagine how being perceived as a donor radically changes that demeaning dynamic…  I could go on, but I think y’all get the point.

The rest of the Forward series will report about other day schools who faced daunting challenges and managed to overcome them… like another school in Massachusetts with a substantial population of kids with special learning needs.

Feel free to contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com and let her know what you think of her series … and you can follow her on Twitter @naomizeveloff too!

J.J. Goldberg?

… a whole piece about how liberal Jewish day school numbers are “stuck in neutral” (while, cue ominous music, Orthodox numbers go up and up and up) and not ONE WORD about cost or tuition?!

Is this an early April Fools’ Joke or some Purim Torah at the tail end of Hannukah?

Something more about day school tuitions…

Dan Perla, the Program Officer of Day School Finance at the AVI CHAI Foundation, has yet another pitch to fix the day school tuition problem.  He cites a number of examples from the field where even middle to upper middle class families get a break on day school tuition to make Jewish education affordable.  But… here comes the caveat:

All these programs are donor supported. Why would donors want to subsidize families making six figure incomes? The answer is simple. It makes good business sense. Losing middle and upper middle income families or failing to attract new ones has several negative consequences. Keeping seats filled and growing enrollment almost always leads to a positive economic outcome. Why? Because the marginal cost of adding a child to a class with an empty seat (which, in fact, is typically the case) is close to zero. So offering a family with three children a 30% or 40% reduction on their full tuition (through a middle income affordability program) still brings in a large amount of incremental dollars with little or no incremental cost. In fact, it is a well-established tenet of day school finance that stable or increasing enrollment almost always leads to greater long term financial sustainability.

So, all the success stories whereby day schools continue to keep Jewish families within the Jewish educational system are contingent on continued donor support.  And there is good reason for donors to continue writing cheques… the return on investment is bla bla bla bla…

Though my eyes inexplicably glaze over with any talk of financials, the fact that they glaze over is a good indication why the pitch ultimately fails.

Have folks learned nothing at all from the 2008 Financial Crisis?

If we continue to look to donors of various calibers to ride into town and save us, then we shall continue to stand curbside with dumb bovine expressions (or glazed eyes) as we gape off into the horizon…  waiting.

Or, to borrow from the current discourse seeking to displace the much-despised market-speak, the 99% cannot and should not look to the 1% to ascertain whether the community’s future (that’s 100%, y’all) is viable (or not).  This is something we all need to solve together.

Jewish birth control and why tithing is regressive and hurts the vulnerable

I have consistently praised Aurora Mendelsohn’s call for day school tuition reform.  Her latest piece at The Forward presents the same cogent argument she made elsewhere at RainbowTallitBaby.  The existing model is not sustainable, she states.  It drives down Jewish birthrates (hence the birth control witticism).  It is invasive, elitist and alienating.  She is right on all counts.  And  then some.

However, I am slightly uncomfortable with her alternative, as steeped in Jewish tradition as it may be.  What could possibly be troubling about a system advocated by the Shulchan Aruch?  Well, it is also happens to be a plan advocated by Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, sorta Mitt Romney and, back in the day, Steve Forbes.   It is the flat tax.

Herman Cain has his version called the 9-9-9 Plan. Newt Gingrich is endorsing an optional flat tax, which means that US taxpayers could pick a flat tax or the current system.  Rick Perry wants that option too.  Mitt Romney wants a “flatter” tax but who the hell knows what that means and whether Romney will stick to this position long enough for anyone to get any clarification about it.

Aurora’s plan promises to be simpler, fairer and arguably lower (why else do it otherwise?), but can it deliver?  Reciting Cain’s flat tax plan with a German accent provides the answer:  NEIN!  NEIN!  NEIN!

First, one cannot potentially lower tuition for a substantial percentage of Jewish families and expect schools to have enough money to function at a minimal level.  For every dollar less one family pays, it has to be made up from somewhere by somebody.  Will the cash-strapped Federation step in to fill the gap, or will another family?  And will we have to add their name alongside the name of the thinker/leader/hero after which the school is already named?   To address the issue of onerous tuition burdens for middle and lower income families is simple.  Lower their tuition!   (But I digress…)

Second, as for fairness, that would depend on the percentage that each family is going to be asked to pay.  If a family is struggling to scrimp and save, borrow against their home and loot retirement savings to pony up 25 percent of their income for tuition and the Fair Sharers come along and say “Now only pay 20 percent,” the plan offers a reduction and some relief.  But what’s that magic number?  How much of a family’s income should be dedicated to day school tuition?   And is this levy per child or per family?  Would an affluent family of three earning $300,000 per year be expected to pay, say, 18% of their income to educate one child (or $54,000 per child) while a working class family of seven earning $60,000 only be asked to pay $10,800 (or $2,160 per child)?  Is this fair?  (Well, I would say yes but the Affluentbergs would disagree.)

Finally, would a flat tuition scheme make paying “simpler,” less invasive and less humiliating?  Probably.  But as I have commented elsewhere, I am dubious if individuals who employ accounting shenanigans in an attempt to shelter income from the government would behave differently in a day school setting.   Perhaps I am being a bit too jaded on this point…

What we need to truly address the existing unsustainable scheme is a system that is even more progressive and less regressive.  Tithing hurts the vulnerable. That’s why Devarim 26:12 states the vulnerable should receive tithes, not pay them.  Also, Jews who did not grow food or raise animals did not tithe. (See VaYikra 27:30.) Perhaps this biblical exemption might be extended to those individuals in the community today who also do not work in tithe-able professions… like Jewish educators!  (This exemption might actually attract more talent to the profession and keep experienced teachers within the system for longer…)

I think Aurora’s piece is a great opening for discussion on this topic.  I think we would all agree that we need more kids in Jewish day schools and more Jewish day schools…

We need a critical mass of educated Jews who can be the folks who pitch in and crowdsource Judaism into the next century, but we cannot achieve this absolutely essential critical mass while pushing a large portion of the next two generations to the brink of financial implosion to make this community priority a reality.

Make sense?