Getting Jewish Education off Life Support

    January 2010            
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Getting Jewish Education off Life Support (Part II)

By Bertram Irving Copyright 2009

My recent article in the Jewish Magazine on the financial viability of the existing Jewish day school model outlined the drama, ambiguity and heartbreak associated with its ever increasing cost. In both that article, and a separate radio interview and call-in session both financial and structural alternatives to the current day school model were explored. Animated reactions came from readers and listeners who included parents, teachers, fund raisers and Federation staffers.

The problem is increasingly easily identified: There are over 200,000 day school students in the United States served by more than 750 schools. Forty percent of those schools serve fewer than 100 students, limiting the potential academic offerings and the ability to attract top-tier teachers. Teachers represent about two-thirds of the cost of running a day school and the average tuition is nearly $15,000 per student per year.

The typical Jewish day school has a "coverage ratio" of only 63%. That is to say that the tuition paid to the school by families represents only 63% of the cost of educating their children. On average, Jewish Federations add about 5% of the cost of a school's education to that number. That leaves more than 30% of the cost of educating each student to be sought through private solicitations.

In acknowledging that the current business model is not adequately sustained, the Avi Chai Foundation has offered grants to communities whose day schools combine common administrative functions in order to garner budget savings. But given that the cost of teachers alone is overwhelmingly large by comparison to the cost of administration, this solution offers little long-term hope.

In my earlier article I addressed after school programs that have been proposed, both by day schools and communities around the country. None pretended to be a direct substitute for a full day school education. We also looked at programs that could be conducted in cooperation with the local public schools, their financial advantages and the negative views offered by day school administrators toward them.

There is now a proposal by the Orthodox Union to create a second tier of day schools – something of a stripped down version of the original – whose tuition might be half that of the traditional day school. Savings would result from the elimination of ancillary general studies and extracurricular activities, and by enlarging classes to reduce the number of teachers required. Is this the quality, Jewish education that parents seek at even a reduced price? Day school enrollment has traditionally held firm in the face of rising tuition. As my earlier article suggests, that may now be changing.

Day school education is now in "maintenance mode." All efforts are designed to provide band-aids to the existing system. Proposals for change offered by the educational establishment seek first and foremost to retain the existing business model. All are destined to at best extend the life of a demonstrably inefficient system – one that, while duplicating costs and services, cannot compete for the best educators available.

The Avi Chai Foundation is on to something. The duplication of administrative tasks and costs is an unnecessary burden on each school. But reducing that duplication offers only a marginal reduction in overall school costs. The existence of common educational offerings and their correspondingly multiplied costs is of an order of magnitude greater.

We take great pride in the communal aspects of our religious, educational and social service activities. Yet a single Jewish community may have multiple schools, each offering similar academic course work to its children. Does each school need to have a dedicated English department or mathematics department or science department? Why can't a single, well-staffed academic department serve more than one school? Why not share the cost of these teachers and their associated overheads? The accrued savings from such efficiencies can be used to attract the very highest quality teachers with competitive salaries – obviating the need to hire only recent graduates or less qualified candidates.

Similarly, many schools are located in close proximity to one another. Could not a single campus serve more than one student body? Traffic management could overcome demands on both the physical plant and the need for either ideological or gender separation. And savings on real estate and operations could further reduce parental obligations.

Jewish philanthropies are denigrated for receiving only 6% of the donations of American Jewish "mega donors." Perhaps many of these successful, largely secular business and entertainment entrepreneurs would be drawn closer to the cause if they saw the efficiencies of a cooperative, sensible business approach at work. They have already rejected the traditional solicitations and the institutions that they support. A plan that tracks their own core business values and promises to deepen the reach of their contributions should strike a far more responsive cord.

It is time to confront the fact that the current system has a limited life. Instead of funding its last desperate breaths, let's test new ideas in the market place. Let's offer incentives for schools to make these kinds of cooperative efforts, even though they may result in the loss of some jobs or the acknowledgement of ideologies with whom they are uncomfortable. Necessity is the mother of invention, and today, more than ever, we have the need to be inventive.

Bertram Irving has been a consultant to large corporations in Europe and North America for more than 20 years. His clients include N.V. Philips, Thyssen AG, Verlagsgruppe Handelsblatt, Swiss Bank Corporation, William M. Mercer, Lustro Plastics Corp., Federal Express and a variety of smaller technology-based firms. He has published books and articles in the fields of both business and religion. Several of his articles on institutional Judaism can be found at He can be contacted at


from the January 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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