How Can Day Schools Lower Their Economic Barriers?

One of the chronic problems facing the Jewish community is the high cost associated with being an engaged Jew. There are synagogue dues, membership fees for Jewish organizations and JCCs, and some Jews truly “break the bank” by sending their children to Jewish day schools. In the pursuit of endowing their children with a well-rounded secular and Jewish education, parents of Jewish day school students spend an average of $15,000 per year per child. While parents are usually satisfied with the education and the “frills” that the schools provide (like arts education, state-of-the-art technology, and small classroom sizes), some are finding that the economic toll is too burdensome and unsustainable in the present economy.

A Huffington Post article this past week, “Jewish School Tuition Crisis: Parents Feeling ‘Priced Out’ of Their Religion,” illustrates the conundrum facing many Jews today and reminds us, at JOI, of a conversation we began through our Big Tent Judaism campaign “There’s No Shame in Asking.” The campaign, which was about publicizing the financial assistance already available at many Jewish institutions, began a side-discussion on synagogue membership models and how employing new pay structures may make synagogue life accessible to Jews of all financial means. As the campaign’s name suggests, JOI wants to be sure community members will feel comfortable asking about other financial options. Unfortunately, as mentioned in this op-ed, “Priced Out,” asking is not always easy in the Jewish community. Thus, the writer Shira Hirschman Weiss similarly calls for a conversation on the economics of the Jewish community and more specifically begs the question: What kind of pay models can the Jewish community and Jewish day schools erect in order to make tuition conceivable for all Jewish community members?

There are various possibilities that Jewish day schools around the country might consider. Could a “fair share” model prevail – one in which families paid that of which they are financially capable? Should communities focus on raising endowment levels, so schools can be generous with scholarships? In some communities, families are considering a new alternative to day schools altogether: building Hebrew charter schools that would be supported by state educational budgets, and provide supplemental religious education off-site. Is it feasible for Hebrew charter schools to succeed in communities around the country?

Jewish day school education clearly has immense value to the Jewish community and to the development of Jewish individuals. There are of course other challenges to the day school model, including that many Jews simply do not want to keep their children in a solely Jewish environment for the entire day. But for those families that find value in day schools, what can the community do to make sure no Jewish family is “priced out,” due to their economic status? How do we lower the barriers to the one of the most impactful entry-points of Jewish life: the Jewish day school?

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