I was privileged to participate in the recent AVI CHAI Strategy_Lab on Jewish day school affordability and sustainability. Kudos to AVI CHAI for gathering community and national leaders to learn about, and try out, best-of-breed tools and techniques aimed at addressing our most vital fiscal challenges.
I couldn’t help noting at this convening, as I had at the last North American Jewish Day School Conference this past year, that there were roughly equal numbers of supporters of two seemingly contradictory positions about the nature of the affordability crisis. The first position is that there is an income-versus-cost affordability challenge for families that desire to send their children to JDS but are increasingly unable to do so because their incomes have not kept up with the increased cost of day school tuitions. Advocates for this position point to U.S. Census data—and to less formal studies of Jewish economics on the income side and to historical average annual increases in Jewish day school tuition—for evidence. They also point to Orthodox families as particularly affected by this crisis. Why? Orthodox families, they say, feel their children “have to” go to Jewish day schools because of deeply held religious beliefs and often have larger families. The income-versus-cost people contrast this with Conservative or Reform or unaffiliated families, for whom Jewish day schools are an option, and less an imperative. (By the way, the idea of income lagging behind tuition levels has long been discussed and documented by the NAIS’ former President Patrick Bassett, since it also significantly affects the independent school world. Thus, this is unlikely to be an Orthodox day school-only problem.)
The second widely and passionately held position is that the affordability issue is actually a value-perception-versus-alternatives crisis. According to this view, the challenge is that families that should be likely candidates for Jewish day schools do not perceive their value as commensurate with their cost relative to alternatives, and thus opt out of the JDS system for, say, high-quality public or private schools and Jewish summer camps or after-school programs. Advocates point to parent-survey data plus more anecdotal information that support the thesis that there are indeed gaps in satisfaction among day school parents, and that these gaps do result in attrition and decreased tendencies to recommend Jewish day schools to others. The solution, say the advocates, is to transform JDS into schools that people will want to attend no matter what the cost. If the product is good enough, people will pay!
Thus, both camps have information on their side, and thus both are right at least for some segment of the Jewish population. We actually have two affordability problems, not one. Recognizing that there is (1) an income-cost gap problem and (2) a perceived value-alternatives problem enables us to bring data and analysis to bear on each problem, develop conceptual solutions, pilot them, measure progress, and expand them. Communal organizations can, as single units, “sign up” to address portions of these vital ratios. For example, PEJE can work on annual fundraising, endowment fundraising, and student recruitment and retention—in collaboration with YU—to increase the “income” portion of the income-cost gap, while educationally focused organizations can address how to increase perceived value relative to the perceived value-alternatives challenge. Funding organizations can purposefully project and allocate funding to R&D and pilot experiments and roll out solutions, carefully calculating return on philanthropic dollars.
So, “Let there be light,“driven by a precise definition of our challenges… and a bit less heat. Our communities, children, and schools will be better for it.