Last month’s article on tuition highlighted the tremendous struggle some typical day school parents have in shouldering tuition costs. This article will discuss ideas and efforts that are being put forth to help alleviate the problem.
As noted last month, our schools meet most of their budget items with tuition money, yet a good portion of operating expenses must be covered by other sources of income, including direct donor contributions, fundraising events, and other sources. In the past, day schools could count on support from Jews who were not necessarily Orthodox but recognized the importance of Jewish education. This source of funds has become minimized, as non-affiliated or more assimilated Jews, who may have a diminished attachment to Judaism, are giving the majority of their charity donations to non-Jewish causes.
One major source of funds that has become an ever more important factor in our day schools’ budgets is The Associated’s annual allocation, including funds from the Weinberg Day School Matching Grant Initiative. This year, The Associated allocated $4.1 million dollars to Baltimore day schools. All the school administrators I spoke with expressed enormous gratitude for this support, which has been ongoing over many years. As generous as The Associated has been, however, schools and parents need more. Here is a compilation of some of the creative thoughts and initiatives that farseeing and idealistic members of our Baltimore community are working on.
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Several years ago, the Vaad HaRabbonim Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore publicized guidelines for tzedaka distribution. While encouraging the community to be welcoming, sensitive, and responsive to all, the guidelines state that “we should be allocating most of our discretionary tzedaka funds to local causes and needs.” The guidelines “encourage all of the members of our community – whether they have children in the schools or not – to consider our community’s schools their first priority in their tzedaka allocations.”
One person who contacted me but wishes to remain anonymous – let’s call him Josh – goes a bit further. He suggests that we should create a community fund specifically for the benefit of local day schools. This idea, found in the Shulchan Aruch, is based on Yehoshua ben Gamla’s ordinance (instituted around the year 64 CE) stating that each community must set up a fund specifically to support a Torah-study school system. “As was done in earlier generations, these contributions should be mandatory, a tax on all members of the community,” says Josh forcefully. “Each family would give according to a set percentage of their tzedaka dollars, proportional to their means.”
One advantage of this system, says Josh, is that it would be set up as a tax-exempt entity. Therefore, even if a parent were to spend close to the same total amount per year (part in tuition, part in fund donations), the amount paid into the fund would be tax deductible.
Josh believes that if this type of fund were instituted and enforced it, it would solve the tuition affordability problem. “Although enforcement and coercion are not generally amenable to people in our society when it comes to their own money,” Josh maintains, “the community needs to realize that this is the most viable and immediate solution, and community leaders and rabbis should join together to initiate it.”
Interestingly, in Chicago, a community education fund was created for day schools – although it is voluntary, not obligatory. The Kehillah Fund website, www.kehillahfund.org, states, “Why shouldn’t the parents be fully responsible for paying for their own children’s education? Because that system simply does not work! An education is a basic need and right of every child and is too costly for 85 to 90 percent of all families to afford. The general public recognizes that we are all enriched from an informed and educated citizen. We therefore fund public school education through communal taxes. Our Jewish education is equally important for Jewish continuity. It, too, needs to be communally funded. That is exactly why the Kehillah Jewish Education Fund exists.”
Community members who join the Chicago fund generally contribute monthly. This fund, in its tenth year, has gone from 350 donors the first year to 1,500 currently, with a 20 percent increase in just the past two years. These efforts have helped sustain the schools and hold down the cost of tuition. Zev Jacobs, Executive Director of the Chicago Kehillah Fund, can be reached at 847-745-1668 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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The funding of Jewish day schools is a subject that Jay Bernstein, host and producer of Shalom USA Radio, is very passionate about. While much progress has been made in the last 10 to15 years, with The Associated using the Weinberg money and current endowment funds, Mr. Bernstein says that much more needs to be done.
“Jewish education is important not only to the Orthodox, who are committed to it, and not only in Baltimore, but to all segments of Jewish society across the country,” says Mr. Bernstein. He would like to see a conversation started with federations about how they prioritize and disperse funds. He cites rampant intermarriage and the loss of Jewish commitment among non-observant Jews as the catastrophic results of a lack of Jewish education. Without some way to stem this tide, these trends will only get worse.
Mr. Bernstein sees two aspects of the problem: First is the tremendous burden that the high cost of tuition places on families committed to giving their children a Jewish education, regardless of which income tax bracket they are in. Second is the need to address the majority of Jewish children whose Jewish education is either very minimal or non-existent. “With the cost of Jewish education so high, how can we attract that segment of the population to even consider sending their children to a day school?” he asks.
Mr. Bernstein argues that, although he is a big Zionist, an argument can be made for spending more federation funds for local causes rather than in Israel. “While not minimizing the need to fund projects there, Israel is much better off than it was 30 to 40 years ago.” He also questions whether funding for organizations like the JCC should really be at the same level of day school funding. Mr. Bernstein would like to see more transparency and public discussion on how federation funds are spent, rather than having decisions made behind closed doors. He also questions whether we need so many different schools for each “ideological sliver,” necessitating their own buildings, fundraising campaigns, and so on. He feels this leads to a breakdown in Jewish unity as well.
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Several months ago, a public meeting of over 100 people was held at the Pikesville Hilton. The meeting was sponsored collaboratively by Bais Yaakov, Bnos Yisroel, TA, and TI to discuss ways to increase support for our schools, including the need for a community-wide day school endowment program. Endowment funds are created by individual or group donations, and usually structured to distribute a majority share of investment returns to one or more non-profit organizations, while growing the principal to cover inflation by retaining a minority share of investment returns.
According to Dr. Paul Volosov, in the months since that event, day school baalabatim (laymen) and professionals, along with representatives of The Associated, have been meeting often to discuss solutions to the tuition crisis with an emphasis on how to conduct a successful day school endowment program.
Dr. Volosov explained that over six years ago, at the initiative of The Associated, the Weinberg Foundation made a five-year commitment to provide $10 million to Baltimore day schools, provided the community raised an additional $5 million of “new” donations. With great effort on the part of The Associated and day school leaders, that condition was fulfilled. Over the first five-year period, a total of $15 million flowed to Baltimore day schools from this effort. Prior to the end of the initial five-year period, the Weinberg Foundation agreed to continue to provide funding to the day schools for an additional five-year period but in an amount that decreases every year and ends completely after the tenth year of the grant. Although The Associated has agreed to increase its funding of day schools to compensate for the decrease in the Weinberg grant, it is not able to completely fill the gap.
“The initial five-year grant by the Weinberg Foundation was exceptionally generous, and reflective of its commitment to the Baltimore community in general and to Baltimore day schools in particular,” says Dr. Volosov. “However, the Foundation’s grant guidelines prevent it from making any permanent grants to any cause, regardless of how important that cause may be. The second five-year Weinberg Foundation grant showed once again how much it recognizes the importance of Baltimore day schools. Given its mission and policies, this was the absolutely best outcome that the Baltimore day school community could realistically expect.”
Over the past decade, Dr. Volosov continues, The Associated has repeatedly increased its grants to the day schools and has committed much time and effort by its lay and professional leadership to find outside funding and other solutions for our day schools. “While day schools are first and foremost on the minds of day school parents, we need to understand that The Associated has many other commitments. In these economically difficult times, the needs of any one cause must be balanced with the needs of all other causes.” Dr. Volosov believes The Associated has been remarkably successful in maintaining this balance over many years and decades.
Obviously, more funding is needed for our schools. Where should it come from? “If we, the Baltimore Orthodox community, won’t take care of our own, who will?” Dr. Volosov asks. About 80 percent of the students in the Baltimore day schools come from Orthodox families. While the local Orthodox community already contributes millions of dollars to local day schools, studies within the Orthodox community have revealed that many more millions of charitable dollars leave our community for charities in Israel and around the world. Like Mr. Bernstein, Dr. Volosov feels that more money should stay at home: “Given the current decrease in funding from the Weinberg Foundation, the time to reprioritize our local day schools and increase our local contributions to them has arrived.
“This is not to suggest that there are not worthy charities in Israel and elsewhere deserving our support. However, as The Associated does with its multiple commitments, we need to balance our local needs with the needs of outside charities. Halacha is clear on this matter, and local halachic authorities have explained that local charities, particularly local day schools, deserve significantly increased local support. If not us, who? If not now, when?”
Dr. Volosov urges every member of the Orthodox community to recognize the absolute necessity of strong, properly-funded day schools to the survival and growth of our community. Each person, according to his own capacity, needs to reprioritize contributing to local charities, particularly to our local day schools. In addition, and most importantly, the day school endowment program is already functional, and tens of community members have made significant commitments to the program. “Over the long term, these commitments will have a significant financial impact on our day schools,” says Dr. Volosov. “The amount that has already been committed, however, is not nearly enough, particularly in current year dollars. The day school baalebatim and professional leaders who have been working on refining the endowment campaign have made significant progress. With siyatah dishmayah, we hope to begin a more public effort shortly.” He urges anyone who would like to participate in these discussions to contact the leadership of one of the four schools involved.
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Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, Agudath Israel’s Mid-Atlantic regional director and president of Maryland CAPE (Maryland’s chapter of the Council for American Private Education), is working on ameliorating the tuition burden through government funding.
The State of Maryland currently funds two programs that help support private schools. The first is the Maryland Nonpublic School Textbook/Technology Program, which goes toward purchasing a moderate number of textbooks and computer hardware and software. Schools “purchase” the items with their allotted sum (a per pupil allocation), but the items are considered on loan from the state. The program’s funding currently sits at $6.1 million shared among all participating nonpublic schools.
The second program, the Nonpublic Aging Schools Program, was established in 2013. Through this program, the State directly reimburses schools for the costs of facility improvement projects on buildings 15 years of age and older. The allocation for this program is $3.5 million.
Both these programs are State budget items that must be included in the governor’s budget and approved by the legislature every year. In order for a private school to be eligible, its tuition must not exceed the $15,000 per child appropriation to Maryland’s public schools. In recent years, The Associated’s partner agency, the Baltimore Jewish Council has been working with Rabbi Sadwin to help secure government funds for the community’s day schools.
“More robust legislative measures, like school vouchers and scholarship tax credit legislation, have been attempted in many states over the last number of years,” says Rabbi Sadwin. “Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, attempts to secure school vouchers have failed. The scholarship tax credit model has become the more viable option, with 14 states over the last decade or so having passed such measures. Efforts in many of the traditionally liberal states, including Maryland, New York, and New Jersey, have yet to succeed.”
Powerful teachers’ unions and their allies exert political pressure to defeat these bills. They claim that “diverting” tax dollars to nonpublic schools will decrease the amount available to public school students. Of course, if all nonpublic school students left their current systems and enrolled in the public school system, that would even further decrease the amount going to each current public school student! But that’s not the way they look at it. Statistics on the Maryland Education Credit website (www.educationmaryland.org) indicate that, based on the average Maryland public school cost per pupil in the year 2010-11, for every 71 students who move from a nonpublic school to a public school, Maryland taxpayers pay an additional $1 million. The total has undoubtedly gone up since then. Extrapolating from those figures, if all of our day school children entered the public school system next year, it would increase the Maryland taxpayer burden by approximately $50 million.
For the past seven years, Rabbi Sadwin, in cooperation with other private school advocates, including the Catholic Conference, has been working to get the Maryland Education Credit (MEC) bill passed. Formerly this was referred to as the BOAST bill (from 2006-2012). This legislation would provide tax credits of 60 to 75 percent (depending on which version of the bill passes) to corporations or individuals who donate to nonprofit Student Assistant Organizations. In an example given on the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) website, a teachers union that opposes this idea, “A $200,000 state [tax] liability for a corporation could be reduced to $50,000 [the 75 percent figure] if the business donates $150,000 to a private school scholarship organization.”
The most recently proposed bill also limited tax credits to $200,000 for any business entity and would cap the total amount allowed each year to $15 million. Naturally, it would be a big benefit to our day schools if this legislation were passed, as it would help lower and middle income families to afford tuition.
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Attorney Meir Katz has a completely different approach for making day school education more affordable. He is not one to put complete faith in the legislative process, where bills that pass one year can be overturned the next and are constantly subject to the pressure of a shifting political climate. While Mr. Katz is not opposed to tax credit programs, he sees them as having limited value and being “highly dependent on a hostile political process, particularly in Maryland.” He further states that voucher and other scholarship programs are generally means tested (and therefore available only to the poor), or they are available only to those with special needs or to students who were previously enrolled in public school, and generally have other severe limitations. “Voucher programs help a great deal, but their impact is limited,” he says.
Mr. Katz favors using the court system to force the U.S. government to fund (at least partially) non-public schools according to the mandates of U.S. law. “Litigation,” he argues, “when used proactively and as part of a well-planned strategy, can tremendously increase the resources available to non-public schools, particularly including religious schools.” But he is quick to add that trying to increase funding to non-public schools with a one-case-at-a-time approach to litigation can do more harm than good. “Fighting in the courts for the rights of non-public schools, at least when it comes to the politically-charged field of public funding, will be a long process, necessitating judicial victories on many different fronts. That process,” he argues, “needs to be planned, coordinated, and constantly reassessed.”
To this end, Mr. Katz envisions establishing a nonprofit law firm – such firms are 501(c)(3) organizations and can accept tax deductible donations – dedicated to fighting these battles and defending the rights of day schools. It is an idea he has been formulating for the past 10 years, and he has begun the process of trying to obtain seed money to get his organization going. Because litigation is a slow process – many cases take five or even 10 years to be resolved – starting such an organization properly demands that roughly 10 years of the organization’s budget be pledged (with much of that money in the bank) before it can begin litigating. He estimates that his organization will require $10 million in firm commitments before it can open its doors. He has devoted much of his personal time and great effort to getting this idea off the ground, but it requires more time, staffing, and someone to help him coordinate and fundraise for it.
Currently, there is no strictly legal organization representing specifically Jewish interests, particularly in day school education. Few have even considered it a possibility. “Unless and until people see the promise in this approach and are willing to support it financially, little will happen,” says Mr. Katz. “But the benefits it could yield are enormous and would not be limited to our community.” As such a legal organization won court battles on these issues, many others, possibly including every non-public school in the country, would benefit by its successes. In fact, the public school system might also benefit, as its costs would decrease when it has fewer students to house and educate. Nonetheless, Mr. Katz reports that, while prospective donors have almost uniformly reacted positively to his proposal and the scope of what he hopes to accomplish, that has not translated into any serious funding.
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It is our hope that the initiatives described above prove successful and that day school funding will become the priority it needs to be for all members of the Jewish community. If you’ve read this far, then sustaining our day schools is probably an important issue for you. Whether we have children in day schools or not, we can all take some type of action – by emphasizing to others the importance of making donations to schools our top priority, calling the school administrators to offer suggestions or help, or becoming more politically active. Most important of all is for each of us to put day school education on the top of the list for our discretionary tzedaka dollars.