My Response to the Lilith Article on Affording Jewish Day School

There is an article about the high cost of Jewish Day School that was published earlier this week in Lilith Magazine.

Many of you have emailed it to me – thank you.

It has also been widely shared on Facebook, so most of you have probably already seen it.

It was written in a most thoughtful way by Elizabeth Mandel. I appreciated her humility, her self-awareness and her holistic approach to this very difficult question.

Some of you may have read it and thought, “Meh, those aren’t questions I struggle with. I know the price is ‘worth it’.”

Perhaps the egalitarian/progressive lifestyle piece turned you off. Or maybe the article just didn’t resonate.

Truthfully, it didn’t fully resonate with me – largely, perhaps, because we have decided to bring our sons home for school.

But what I truly appreciated about her article was the careful, sensitive way in which she asked a question that so desperately needs to be asked: What price are we paying to give our children a Jewish education?

For some, paying tuition bills (possibly even with financial assistance) means not being able to save for retirement; not being able to afford repairs on your home; or, like Elizabeth, not being able to work more flexible hours.

For those who are breaking even, these choices are just that – choices. And as long as one has their eyes open about the short- and long-term impact of these choices, I don’t think there are right or wrong ones to make.

But I hear weekly from readers who are drowning under their tuition bills. They’re nowhere close to breaking even. They aren’t making choices, they’re dodging bullets.

They are running monthly deficits into the thousands. One woman shared with me that she has a credit card she uses only at the grocery store — and it currently has a balance of over $8,000. Others are behind on their mortgages, and facing imminent foreclosure. One told me that her rabbi counseled her husband to have faith and stay the course.

The affordability question is, in many ways, above my “paygrade”. There are communal issues at work here that definitely need to be addressed – beyond the valiant efforts that so many have already put into “solving this problem”.

But when readers email me and say, “What should I do? I’m four months behind on my mortgage. Can you teach me to clip coupons so I can afford yeshiva tuition?” I have to be painfully honest with myself — and with them.

Cutting coupons is great. It can easily save you a few hundred dollars a month. Menu planning and budgeting are great money-saving tools, as well.

But if you’re spending an average of $1500, or $2,000 or even $3,000+ a month more than you’re making, and you’re carrying balances on multiple credit cards, then thinking that cutting coupons will save you is like being buried alive and trying to dig yourself out with a spoon.

What you need is a bulldozer. Or at least a couple of very large shovels – and some heavy-lifters.

And it may well be (and I say this gently, as I know many of you will vehemently disagree with me) that the bulldozer needs to be directed at school tuition.

Not as your first choice. Not even as your second or third choice. But if all other cuts in spending and increases in income have been exhausted, and you still can’t make it work, then as a last resort.

Elizabeth’s family is in the seemingly enviable position of being able to “make it work” financially. With deep sacrifices, yes — but they appear to be “breaking even”.

And even still, she is worried that making day school the top Jewish value for her family means they are sacrificing their ability to impart other Jewish values.

For those who aren’t breaking even, I worry that the legacy of sacrifice will be unbearable — not only for the parents, but for their children.

What do you think? What sacrifices have you made for your children’s education? Is the cost worth it? Above all else? 

Comments

comments

Comments

  1. Bethany Mandel says:

    I haven’t had to deal with this yet, I’m still pregnant with my first, but I’m already freaking out about how the bills will be paid. How do people do it? I don’t know. It’s scary to read some of the ways people are figuring it out — going into this much debt just can’t be an option as far as I’m concerned. It’s heartbreaking seeing families doing this to themselves, and it’s also so sad to see parents deciding to “only” have 1 or 2 or 3 kids because they can’t afford the day school tuition bills for more.

    This is a big checkmark in the “aliyah” column for us.

    Looking forward to following this conversation.

  2. Jennifer R says:

    We actually decided against Jewish day school. (Our option was a Schecter/Conservative day school; we are Conservative.) Our thinking was this: our Orthodox day school is seriously struggling academically and financially and may not be viable much longer because we have such a small community. The Conservative day school is larger and more vibrant, and was doable financially for us but not doable logistically, as it would have meant a commute of anywhere to 45 min to 1.5 hours both ways each day, and we have two other kids to get to two other schools as well. We thought we could make it work as long as the day school kept their bus from our area to the school. So we decided to go for it–and then they pulled the bus service. So while we value Jewish education for our kids and we could make the tuition work, we couldn’t do the time involved to get our kids there while still working our full-time jobs and having any quality of life. So we will supplement the public school education our kids will get with Jewish tutoring, Jewish camps, and other Jewish experiences. It was a tough, tough decision, though. The other thing I’ve struggled with is watching my Orthodox nieces and nephews going through the Orthodox day schools and high schools and not getting anything remotely close to a decent secular education. Their Jewish education has been good, but their classes in science and math and English and history have required my SIL and BIL to hire tutors to keep the kids at pace with the state standards. Which has nearly doubled the cost they pay for the school. They are financially able to do it, but how many other families in our community in this situation can afford to do this to make sure their kids are able to stay at grade level with their peers across our state? I honestly think the non-Jewish education in our local Orthodox elementary is worse than it is in all but the worst of our public schools. Such a tough situation all around.

  3. These are all good questions to ask and points to think about. This year (third grade for my one child), I’ve begun to have doubts about sending my daughter to day school. At this point, however, we’ll just finish what we started. They’re relocating the middle school too far away so that’s not a consideration anymore, anyway. My daughter was unaware that public school is free. When I told her, she herself said that she can’t wait to go to public school. *cry* I’m looking forward to those few years of relief of not only the bills but even just all the paperwork involved for the financial aid. I’m not complaining. I do appreciate all of it, but it is burdensome in both money and time.

  4. Stuart Stein says:

    I worry about the costs that will be upcoming for tuition. My son is not yet there, but it seems that I am saving the minimum to get the maximum match for retirement from my employer, so to stop that is like throwing away free money. I do not know where to cut or how to increase my income enough to cover the upcoming costs as I am approximately breaking even before them, and we would like to have additional children. As I speak with friends and hear stories it seems that as years go by tuition increases significantly and the funds to go around for assistance drops, so there are fewer people that can qualify and the amount of assistance is reduced every year as prices increase. I am not sure what to do when I get to this decision, but hopefully I can make it work somehow as I do want to send my kids to yeshiva.

  5. Beverlee says:

    We know people from across the Jewish spectrum, who have chosen different options for their children’s schooling, and I can tell you that, from my experience, school is the icing on the cake but it is not the cake itself. If a family is committed to Jewish values and living a positive Jewish lifestyle, a Jewish school will reinforce that, but is not integral to that. Likewise, if you don’t “live Jewish”, sending your kids to day school is a waste of money, IMHO. It’s not an inoculation against the secular world. I know lots of people who went to day school through the end of high school who are totally estranged from Judaism because their parents didn’t walk the walk at home. (One woman once told me, “Perhaps, if we’d taken it more seriously at home, our kids would identify as Jewish now.”)

    That said, we have chosen to make the huge financial sacrifice to send our children to day school, but we do it knowing that there are other options out there, and that some of them are good options. We also know that our home is strongly enough Jewish that our children won’t stray because of lack of attachment.

  6. We’re definitely not doing day school. Ever. The main reason is that we would never send our typical children to a school that could not and/or would not educate their sister with ASD. Until Jewish schools recognize and admit that they are *failing* the 200,000+ Jewish children with special needs, we will neither pay tuition or donate.

    I really worry about the Orthodox community because I see a cycle of poverty emerging. Parents are, at best, not saving for retirement to send their kids to day schools. The kids are receiving subpar educations at these schools and struggle to find work after graduation. The ones who do find work will now have to support their parents and pay for their own children’s education. Something needs to change and soon.

    • Mara Strom says:

      Kira – I have two very close friends who have already faced this same situation with their special needs child. I agree with you – it is a failure. And a heart-breaking one at that. Both for individual families, and for our larger community.

    • Kira:
      You are so smart and your child is so fortunate that you did not try to have your special needs child get a day school education. We did – and it was hideous. Our small Ohio day school, which offered tuition help for low income families, provided no assistance or even teacher training for a child who had AD/HD or who was on the autism spectrum. Yet, the director always assured parents that the school was just right for their child (the truth was, unfortunately, he wanted to keep the enrollment numbers up.)

  7. I very much agree that the cost is almost too much to bear. I am very scared for what my bill will be next year as my son enters a full day of day school and my daughter starts a 1/2 day. The amateur economist in me says we need to look at all costs, including the opportunity cost of not being able to use that money else where and the externalities that may cause. It feels to me the number has gotten so large that the thought of paying full tuition is laughable. I know much has been to try and solve the problem, but no one seems to have the magic bullet. It feels like the school boards are staffed with people who make more than enough and therefore are not worried about fixing the bigger problem. I know you think that the bigger issue is above your pay grade, but you might be surprised how much you can do just by giving a voice to the little people. Once again I appreciate you taking on such a tough subject, but please don’t underestimate yourself.

  8. Rivka I. says:

    We are of two minds about day school. In theory, it’s what I want for my children, especially since I did not grow up from and am not confident about my ability to provide adequate limudei kodesh. In practice, I am far from satisfied with what the local day school offers, even though I have no complaints academically (yet), either for limudei kodesh or chol.
    At the moment, I have one child in public school, one child who just finished K in day school and a toddler in home daycare. My oldest is in public school because he is autistic, and don’t get me started about the day school’s profound lack of interest in working with us, despite the fact that my kid is on the very high-functioning end of ASD and has no behavior problems or academic deficits. (Heck, he’s in the gifted program and doing very well, thank you very much.) My middle child is in day school and has done well for the most part, but she’s such a sensitive soul that the social scene has been tough for her to navigate. (If your strongest desire is for everyone in the room to get along, wouldn’t you freak out a bit if the people around you used phrases like “I won’t be your friend anymore” as common currency?) My youngest is still too young, but I wonder what will happen down the road, given that he’s the kind of kid who is always moving and doing.
    So I’ve come to the conclusion that my husband and I don’t make in-the-box children, and yet in-the-box children seem to be what the day school wants, nearly to the point of insisting of them. This of course raises grave questions about how much of our money we want to give the day school, which my autistic son has (heartbreakingly) begged to attend. Just paying tuition for one, on top of daycare, is already a strain. Yet what to do? I’ve thought of homeschooling but have yet to figure out whether we can swing it, whether financially, logistically or emotionally.

    • Mara Strom says:

      I completely, 100% hear you about “out of the box children”. 100%.

      If you decide to look more at homeschooling, I’d be happy to answer any questions. We’re totally still figuring it out as we go, and I’m still not totally convinced that this is our permanent solution, but for now, it’s good.

  9. We decided against sending our daughter to day school. At the time she started kindergarten, the economy was the worst it has ever been, and my work all but dried up. The tuition was unaffordable and we couldn’t get financial aid based on our previous year’s earnings. Once she started public school, we were loathe to make her switch. Besides, our day school here is struggling and they have implemented changes to make it more of an “international” school rather than a Jewish school.

    I send her to Sunday School, as well as making sure we commit to our values at home. Instead of day school, I now send her to an overnight Jewish camp, where I feel that her sense of Jewish values is solidified, and that is an expense I feel is worth the sacrifice. Besides, she loves going to camp and counts down the days until camp starts each year.

    We have struggled mightily the past 5 years because of the type of work I do, which is so sensitive to economic downturns. Unfortunately, we are ineligible to get financial aid for camp, not because we don’t qualify, but because we live 30 miles to far from the JCC. However, I will do whatever I have to in order to make sure she can keep going as I feel the benefits far outweigh the sacrifices, and fortunately, we have been able to make it work so far but each year I stress about it.

  10. We have made considerable sacrifices to send our 7 children to day school. It has worked out beautifully for the first 5 but not so well for the youngest who are facing a definate decline in teacher quality and administrative interest. However, the choice of sending them to public school is not a choice. The inevitable falling off of religious involement at a crucial point in their lives is not acceptable. But yes, I agree there is a huge problem that the Jewish community is not addressing. We are not all going to make aliyah and we should be provided with affordable or even bearable quality Jewish education for our children.

  11. This article hit a nerve with me. The author went back to work so her family could afford day school tuition. My husband and I already work full-time and we still won’t be able to afford day school tuition. All of the things she struggles with as a working mom are the trade-off for her children to go to day school. This is my daily life and there is no trade-off for me.

  12. Anonymous says:

    In the community in which I live, which will remain nameless, something was attempted about 3 years ago to try to solve the tuition crisis. Unfortunately, it was immediately nipped in the bud by people who don’t really have to worry about tuition bills. One of the main Orthodox elementary schools (a reasonably right-wing, yeshivish place) got the approval of several rabbanim to investigate the possibility of it becoming a charter school (this is a state with strong support for charter schools). At the time, the school was so strapped for cash that they weren’t even able to pay their teachers on time.

    The principal and administrators were pretty sure that by taking several specific measures they would manage to still keep the school exclusively Jewish (which is an issue for charter schools). Certain adjustments would have had to be made. Teaching Hebrew subjects would have had to take place only during certain hours of the school day. They wouldn’t have been able to daven or say bircas hamazon out loud with the kids in the school, so certain adjustments would have had to be made. However, this could have been worked out (for that amount of money, I for one would be happy to daven with my kids at home until they were old enough to do it themselves).

    They called a meeting of the students’ parents to let them know that they were considering this. They got support from many, especially the parents who are professionals and pay a significant portion of the tuition, but encountered very angry, vocal opposition from a number of parents who are in the kollel. They were accused of making compromises in the kids’ Jewish education, allowing the state to dictate how they were taught, etc. The accusations got so ugly that the principal, who is a 30-year veteran of the school and incredibly devoted to the community, left the meeting in tears. These kollel parents, by the way, are given a very deep discount in tuition by the school and have the balance paid off by their kollel. Some of the parents who were opposed then went to some major rabbanim, only presented their side, and had them come out strongly against trying to turn day schools into charter schools.

    I live very close to a public elementary school and see a number of obviously frum parents drop off their kids there. I live in a fairly affluent part of the greater community. Seeing this in my neighborhood makes me wonder how many frum kids in poorer areas are in public school, since their parents have even less money to send them to day school. I don’t believe that all of the frum kids that I see are special needs kids who need the facilities of a public school. Even if they are, becoming a charter school would likely enable these day schools to accomodate and educate these children as well. It would also improve the secular education all around, allow them to build or buy an adequate building (which they currently don’t have), and obviously guarantee that teachers could be paid on time. By not being willing to allow any changes in the school curriculum for their own kids, these parents have virtually guaranteed that a number of Orthodox kids won’t have the opportunity to go to day school.

    Has anyone else encountered anything similar in their communities? To what extent has the charter school option been investigated (in states that allow them)? Thanks again for writing about this, Mara!

    • Mara Strom says:

      What an interesting idea and even tho it didn’t happen, I say kol ha’kavod for your administration for exploring it! I think that’s the kind of out of the box thinking that will be very helpful in helping alleviate this pressure for families.

  13. Rivka H. says:

    We moved to a city primarily so that we could send our kids to a quality Orthodox school. We have been extremely satisfied with the school, the teachers, as well as the community as a whole. We B”H get a generous scholarship, but we still make a lot of sacrifices to send them, and we feel it has been totally worth it.

    We have sort of considered home schooling, but there would be many financial and practical challenges to overcome. One specifically is that we would still be obligated to contribute to the school, as members of the Jewish community, so if we are already contributing, why not just send our kids there?

    My husband is on the school board so I get to hear first hand the deep financial troubles. We as a family are committed to contributing to the school with both money and other contributions. (That’s why I think all of our school families should follow Kosher on a Budget, etc!!) We hope we’re helping even just a little to solve the “tuition crisis.”

    • Rivka H. says:

      PS This is not say that our school is perfect; we do have issues come up and some do get resolved satisfactorily and some don’t, but on the whole it has been really really good for our family.

  14. I would like to know some out-of-the-box positive solutions for giving my kids a Jewish education. I am currently short-paying my kids’ school just so we can put food on the table. I am unemployed, and all of our credit cards are maxed out. As my oldest son is approaching Bar Mitzvah, I wonder about the possibility of easing our burdens to become debt-free, saving for emergencies, and eventually making him a Bar Mitzvah that won’t completely embarrass him. If I choose to home-school my kids, how will I give my son the education all of his peers will be getting, if I myself am not versed in the material? I can give my kids a secular education at home, but how will my boys learn to “lein”, read from the Torah, and have an understanding of the Talmud, etc., information that I have never so much as overheard in my female Jewish education. I thought about sending my kids to Yeshiva for only half the day for Judaic studies, and keeping them home for secular studies, but how does a mother of 4 pay close enough attention to each of her kids’ varying levels of learning and personal needs to give each kid a fighting chance at a prosperous adulthood? Even if I were to find a job, the increase in household income would only serve to increase our tuition bill by that amount, which would leave our family in the same financial ruin as we currently are in. I would love to know what other Orthodox families are doing to cut, or cut back on the costs of education without cutting out on their children’s future! Please share….

    • Mara Strom says:

      Great questions!

      For limudei kodesh, I can say that we have been using tutors. Our children are still young, so I find a few intensive hours a week goes a long way. I’m also fortunate to have pretty fluent Hebrew, so I can work on their language skills with them.

  15. Surella says:

    All our money went to tuition. The schools were good, Yeshiva University high schools but we have no money saved. And my husband made a pretty good living. I can’t imagine how many tons of money my friends who could afford vacation, etc made.
    And my 3 kids came out completely different from each other: one is a very from rabbi, one is conservative, one is completely not religious. So much for all that money I spent for yeshivas. I’m glad to be rid of it. It was an awful embarrassing time because there was such a great divide between incomes.

  16. Surella says:

    All our money went to tuition. The schools were good, Yeshiva University high schools but we have no money saved. And my husband made a pretty good living. I can’t imagine how many tons of money my friends who could afford vacation, etc made.
    And my 3 kids came out completely different from each other: one is a very from rabbi, one is conservative, one is completely not religious. So much for all that money I spent for yeshivas. I’m glad to be rid of it. It was an awful embarrassing time because there was such a great divide between household incomes.

  17. My four children are presently in an orthodox day school. The eldest just graduated, and is on to seminary (don’t get me started on that one, but that’s for another discussion). The cost of day school is out of reach, and we are drowning. Ironically, we would be considered middle class. My husband and I both have good jobs, which makes us not qualify for tuition assistance, but we certainly don’t have enough money to pay the bills. It’s the families with one income, or larger families who end up getting larger tuition subsidies, take food stamps and social assistant for medical bills that fare better than us. Dayschool, and don’t forget a Jewish lifestyle (even with couponing), our neighborhoods tend to have more costly real estate, food is more expensive — especially with shabbos each week, and yom tov, leading a committed orthodox life is expensive. Running a school is expensive, and tuition doesn’t cover all the costs, but it’s not a sustainable system either. What legacy am I giving my children if I can’t pay for their weddings? bar mitzvahs? and other assistance to my children as they grow older because I was paying tuition? I am a healthy woman in her early 40s, I’ll never be able to stop working full time, we’ll never take a vacation, buy a new car?

  18. Sasha S. says:

    Tuitions are depleting us month after month, year after year. Its a struggle. On the other hand, we could never expose our kids to the values and attitudes found in public school today. Our kids schools are so good, wholesome environments, full of teachers who are role models. We have seen that religious values are largely looked down on in the public schools (at least where we live). We struggle financially, we live by a strict budget, and we work more than we’d like to, but we do it for a good cause – our kids future. Homeschooling just isn’t an option for us: just not the kind of family that could make that work.

  19. It saddens me to see just how many people are not sending their kids to Jewish schools! I would never send mine anywhere but.

  20. I do not have children yet but my husband and I have discussed this extensively. We both feel that public school with Jewish tutors is the route we will go. I have heard from some that this is almost as expensive as day school, but, it opens up so much more in terms of extracurricular activities and secular education quality. (I have major issues with Jewish schools using girls with teaching certificates from seminaries in place of those who have Masters of education.) Additionally we feel that it is important to be exposed to other cultures and that Jewish day schools often foster intolerance of others. (My husband cites teasing of children adopted from abroad during his childhood as an example.)

    I did once hear a fascinating conversation among frum families (specifically the dads) about how school subsidies are distributed within the orthodox community. They brought up some very valid points. Families that have a house beyond their means, drive cars beyond their means, and take yearly vacations often get the same assistance as those that have skimped and saved. If one wishes to have a larger house, that is fine, but their increased mortgage payments should not earn them greater assistance than a family that bought a smaller house and has multiple children to a room. Apparently as it currently stands, one can max out all their accounts, claim they have no money for school and receive aid, all while driving a Lexus instead of a Toyota. Additionally families that have more children get higher levels of assistance and one does not know why another family might have fewer children (not always personal choice or maybe it was a personal choice, one made in order to afford the schooling).

    The men took the average cost of an average sized house, an average car payment, a few other various costs, and came up with a cost of living in the Jewish community. They then decided that the average frum family has 4 children, some more, some less. Once they put those together that was the figure which a family must make in order to afford for their children to attend day school. For most, it was well above what people in the community make. In this community it is estimated day school costs will shortly be at (within next ten years) $25,000 per child for higher education. That is obviously an unsustainable figure.

  21. We have a lot of frum kids who have been “counseled out” of the local day school who currently homeschool. They have boys from the local Yeshiva live with them as boarders and tutor the kids. It’s worked out beautifully so far. I’m not sure if it’s only workable in our particular community, but it’s something to consider.

    Dara, many of us would like nothing more than to send our kids to a Jewish school. It breaks my heart that they don’t want my oldest. And my 3 younger ones *adore* their sister, so I am always worried that they will turn their backs on Judaism when they see frum Jews actively reject her. I feel that I have to protect them so that they won’t go OTD when they’re adults. It’s my hope that they’ll be the ones to change things for special needs children and adults in the frum community – I just have to get them there the best way I know how. B’H for Friendship Circle.

  22. Like Rivka I., I have a child with special needs in public school and a few others in the day school system. While my child who has attended public school has done well there, the last year was hard in large part because the gap between our family’s values and the lifestyle of secular tweens/teens has widened a lot. He learns a bit and davens, but not with the confidence and regularity he would if he were in day school. He brings home dirty words (even the teachers occasionally say words that are “minor” curses not permitted in our home). He is exposed to movies, talk about tv, and inappropriate music through his peers. He misses school for holidays, and the state penalizes the school budget even if he’s absent for a religious reason. In order to limit the impact on our school, we feel it necessary to send him to school at least for a half-day on chol hamoed. If I could have kept my son in day school and gotten him OT/etc. services, I would have done it. (I have a big heap of resentment about that, but it’s outside the scope of this discussion.)

    My day school kids are thriving, B”H. The price is staggering, but scholarships have helped, thank G-d (thanks to generous donors, too). The amount even my five year-old knows and has internalized about yiddishkeit puts many adults to shame. Is it our home environment? In part, but the school deserves a lot of the credit. I daven all the time that we can afford to keep them in day school and even to find a way to get my eldest in day school, too.

    I tried homeschooling one of my kids, briefly. It suits many parents just fine but I’m 100% clear it doesn’t fit my family. (That’s even though my husband is a teacher and I used to be one, as well.)

    No school is perfect, but it has to be the right place for your child (and your family). My public school kid and his day school sibs all enjoy school. It’s funny: parents with kids in each kind of school fantasize about if a switch to the other will fix whatever problems they have. How do I know? Because people talk about it with me all the time since I have kids in both settings. But life is naturally full of bumps, and they’ll crop up anywhere. There is no 100% solution.

    The day school system definitely needs an overhaul to make it affordable. But sending your kids to public school has massive trade-offs, too. And — who knows? — since parnassa is from Heaven, “saving” on day school tuition may up costing you in the end, in a literal or figurative sense.

  23. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about what out-of-the-box things that can be done to make tuition a little more affordable. I’ve done some reading and research and a few things have caught my eye, different things that various communities have done. In Georgia, the state income tax is 6%. There’s a program in the Atlanta area that allows a Georgia taxpayer to designate $2500 of their state taxes to a particular religious school student’s tuition. It starts in kindergarten, and can follow them ($2500/year) throughout school. This program has had great benefits for both Orthodox and Catholic schools in the area. Not a perfect solution, but $2500 per kid per year goes a long way. Either parents or friends or other relatives of the child can be the designated payee (if I’m getting some of the details wrong, maybe someone from Atlanta can chime in). I think that it’s possible that people in other states can discuss implementing a similar program with their local politicians. The money could come either from state taxes or from property taxes.

    Vouchers are great, but people have been talking about them for 40 years, and they’ve continued to be virtually unattainable. A notable exception is Wisconsin, which has allowed vouchers in the Milwaukee area for a while, and appears to be on the verge of approving a state budget that will expand the voucher program to other areas of the state. My understanding is that some day schools have been able to use them, and, while not coming close to covering tuition, they have helped some (maybe some Milwaukee people can chime in here).

    Another possibility is the charter school route (I’m the one who wrote earlier about a particular community trying to start one). Hollywood, Florida has the Ben Gamla school. It’s not exclusively Jewish (although the vast majority of students are Jewish), and they’re limited in what they can teach from a religious perspective. Still, it’s a giant step up from public school. It’s culturally Jewish, they teach in Hebrew, and there are dress codes and behavior codes. It was originally billed and started as a progressive school. I do feel that if an Orthodox school were to become a charter school, it could end up being more religious than Ben Gamla, albeit with more restrictions on what they could teach (or when they could teach) than they would like. With the extra money, I think that a school would be able to afford to make provisions for teaching some limudei kodesh outside of the standard hours. And if the school were really Orthodox, it would mostly just appeal to Jewish students. Also, the administration could really control the general atmosphere, culture, and way of speaking in the school. As I mentioned in my earlier post, it could greatly improve the secular education (which I agree is sorely lacking in a number of schools), and could potentially provide funding to include special-needs kids, which would be wonderful. It’s not ideal for a day school to have these limitations, but the current system is also very far from ideal. The old expression of not making perfect the enemy of good definitely applies here. One challenge will be finding an administration that is truly interested in creating a frum day school, yet is willing to make these necessary compromises. Still, it’s an idea with potential.

    Finally, I did see a possible solution for people who would be willing to move far away but don’t quite want to go the aliyah route. Calgary, Canada, has an extensive voucher system, and the Jewish Federation also donates a generous stipend for lower- and middle-income families. It’s possible that other parts of Canada have vouchers as well. This could possibly work for someone who already has a family connection to Canada—kind of a drastic step, but also possibly a better solution than public school for some. Considering that health insurance is free there, as well, it might be easier for some people to manage financially there than in the U.S., as long as they could find jobs there…

    • Anonymous says:

      I am a Milwaukeeian (Is that the correct way of saying it) I was born and raised here and I moved back shortly after getting married.

      I can’t speak for everyone but I am very grateful for the school voucher system (known around here as school choice). Currently it is available in Milwaukee County and Racine County and hopefully with the new budget that is being proposed it will be expanded throughout the state. As far as Milwaukee, choice use to be available to only schools in the the city and the Orthodox day school participates. It then expanded to the county (a year or two ago – I can’t exactly remember) and the girls high school decided to become a ‘choice” school. (there is a lot of additional rules and regulations, certain administrative requirements plus an annual audit to be a choice school – it creates a lot of work for a school to be part of the voucher program)

      It definitely has its pros and cons but overall it is a life saver for most of the parents – a large majority qualify for vouchers. It covers tuition which is set amount determined by the state.

      I feel very fortunate that my children are getting a wonderful education – Judaic and secular without the burden of tuition. The school in the last round of testing scored higher then the public school system. It should be noted that the state set tuition amount is several thousand less then what they say it costs to education a student in the public school.
      Honestly, having the vouchers means that I can be a stay at home mom, which is big priority to me. I know so many moms in other communities who tell me that they work only because of having to pay tuition.

      • Mara Strom says:

        We have friends who live in Milwaukee and I have been fascinated by this option. It sounds like a huge blessing.

        • Anonymous says:

          Mara, it really is a huge blessing. We’ve had families move to Milwaukee because of the low cost of living here, which really means tuition vouchers and affordable housing. I have four kids at our local day school and pay no tuition, while my friends in other cities deal with huge burdens. The school choice vouchers pay a large part of our day school’s budget, though we still have plenty of fund raising for parents to help with.

          I’m not looking forward to paying tuition for my son when he enters high school, but I know my husband and I will only be facing one tuition at a time this way (my second child is a girl and will continue to get free tuition at our local Jewish girls’ high school).

    • Mara Strom says:

      Very interesting ideas. Thank you so much for contributing them – this dialogue has been great!

  24. I just want to add something to this discussion. Many many people are commenting on how they receive financial aid through generous donor systems within the Jewish community. I want to comment on that. I am in a family of dentists. My father and uncle in-laws graduated from dental school with student loans less than one year of today’s dental school tuition. Loan interest rates have risen as well. Pay, on the other hand, has not. My husband and brother-in-law both struggle to pay their loans while supporting their families even as dentists. This is true of many professions. What this ultimately means is that those who currently have young children or will be having children in the near future will not have the same number of wealthy community members to offset their costs as previous generations did. When we were kids our parents either had disposable income by the age of 30 or were able to lean on those who did. I can’t help but wonder how that will affect day schools in the future. This could very well mean that in addition to rising costs, there will be fewer donations. What then?

  25. When we lived in America (Long Island, New York), this was practically a daily conversation in our home as our tuition bill broke $50,000. We did apply for and receive a scholarshop, but still were responsible for about $40,000. We both had good jobs, and lived fairly modestly for what was considered an affluent modern orthodox community. Sending kids to the local public schools just wasn’t done. This was back in 2007. Things may have changed since the economy tanked in 2008. I’ve heard that unemployment has soared in the community and there are people considering other options.

    I would caution people to think that Aliya will solve your tuition problems. Yes tuition is a fraction of what it is in the states (I pay the equivalent of $2500–A YEAR!–for two high school kids). But Israeli salaries are a fraction of what they are in the states. Financially things get rough here in Israel, too. So I encourage you to make the move if you want to be here, if you believe Israel is the ideal place to raise your Jewish children–but don’t come only for financial reasons. That is a recipe for failure IMHO.

    • Agreed. We made aliyah for idealistic reasons and in the end, due to our professions – I think we may come out ahead financially here. BUT that should not be the main reason to move here. There are lots of other challenges living here and you have to want to be here to make it work.

    • Mara Strom says:

      I definitely agree with you Baila!

  26. We are currently out of this system – we’re homeschoolers, too. And we live out of the country in a place without a Jewish Day school, so it made the decision to continue homeschooling fairly easy for this year and next. We love the way homeschooling works for us!

    But we’ve been watching the fragmentation of schools (as some fail and some start) and tuition increasing in our home area of the US, and are truly worried about our options when we return. We take the decision to homeschool one year at a time, but if we wanted to put our kids into day school…well, it will mean a lot of juggling and sacrificing, kids put into day care, etc… And with 4 small kids (soon to be 5 iyH), our tuition bill will eventually be more than our (reasonable) mortgage – and that’s at today’s prices, not counting increases. It’s just not sustainable or realistic.

    I wish I had the answers!

  27. Melissa says:

    My husband & I made the choice to pull our kids from Jewish Day School and into public school for all the reasons outlined in your article. Our challenge became to ensure that our home remained a strong Jewish home to retain all that my kids had learned and grown up with. We invest in Jewish camp for them to further strengthen the Jewish bond. The issue is that if so many people are struggling with the cost of Jewish education, where is the organized Jewish community in all of this??? Why aren’t the UJA’s etc raising money to help lower the cost?? Community grants (Gen J) are good but they are band aid solutions to a hemorrhage.

  28. Jennifer Barnes says:

    Such an interesting, painful, insightful discussion! I have friends in various cities across the US. A friend on the west coast has $80,000 tuition bill before financial aid for 4 kids ranging from H.S. down to 1st grade! KOAB is the 3rd person I know who is homeschooling their children. Friends in LA home school their 3 kids and apparently there is some sort of “Jewish home schooling club” in LA that organizes programs often for families of all Jewish Backgrounds to interact, etc… I think this is very interesting. Someone else I know has a sister in another “out of town” community that does “collective home schooling”. There are a handful of families who got together to home school their kids of a certain age. Each mom/parent is responsible to teach the group 1,2 subjects.

    My husband is trying to push me into home schooling. I like the idea, am not against it, but don’t feel it will work with my son who is “on the spectrum”. We just spent $40,000 a year for 2 years in a wonderful special ed program at the JCC (thank g-d for scholarships and financial aid!!). I can’t see throwing that away to try to get me to home school him. Between our personalities, I know it will be a disaster.

    I don’t know if this is done, but my husband did have an interesting suggestion. Have x amount of families get together to home school their children or children of a certain age collectively. Contribute y amount to a fund that will take care of trips, special supplies, special programs, etc.. for the group. Each mom/parent will teach 1,2 subjects. This can work for young children for a while as they don’t need gemara or more advanced judaic studies. When the time comes, the families can chip in a couple of thousand a year to pay a teacher to teach them when they are advanced and need the extra Judaic studies specialty and training.

    In our state, there is an entire state gov’t based home schooling curriculum that you can access and down load to use. Don’t know if there are other states that do that.

    Another issue that a friend brought up, is the mis-management of funds and the top heavy administrative positions in schools that are a waste of money and not needed. When I say schools I mean Yeshivas.

    I worked for a dentist when first starting college who suggested all the Jewish kids go to the local H.S. and have parents pay a 1/3 out of pocket for afternoon Judaic studies of what a regular yeshiva would cost. He thought of this 20 years ago. What a shame no one took his advice!

    Such a big problem, but it’s one of the reasons we do not live in NY where my entire family is. We wouldn’t be able to afford anything!

  29. Shlomo from Toronto says:

    To live a fulfilled modern Jewish life in North America you have to either be rich or make sacrifices and not be embarassed to ask for assistance….but it is important to stress that there is nothing that can replace Jewish Day School – no matter the pedigoical or religious philosophy. Living a culturally enriched Jewish life is nice but simply not enough. The basis to one’s Jewish education is the ability to learn from the sources – not everyone can pick-up a page of Talmud and study, but at least understand and be familiar and know how to ask the questions. When we were burdened with the embarassement that we had to ask for more and had no other option but public school….but in Israel. Yes it is financially challenging in Israel but this is where we can teach our children what it really means to be a Jew and the importance of Israel. Seriously consider it because the future of Judaism is here! You should all contact Nefesh B’Nefesh ASAP.

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