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.