The 5% Tuition Solution

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
 
With the busy Yom Tov season, I would not be surprised if many missed what is potentially the most significant Jewish news story of the year. I am referring to the announcement that four Jewish day schools in New Jersey will be capping tuition fees at a maximum of 18% of income, regardless of the number of children in the family. This new grant money, which is in addition to any tuition breaks already in place for lower income families, is aimed at middle class families, i.e., those earning between $150,000 and $325,000, which is an income level most can only dream of - yet does not allow many to pay the crippling costs of tuition. This initiative is being made possible by a gift of the Gottesman Family Foundation. Even better, each of the four schools involved have enhanced the program, with tuition being capped at even lower rates for those earning “only” in the $250,000 range. 
 
This initiative will first and foremost lower the burden on those who desire the basic right to have, and then give their children, a Jewish education. The enormous cost of day school education not only prevents many from attending, it has caused many Jewish babies not to be born. While there is little statistical information available, it is well known amongst middle-income families that day school tuition is the best form of birth control.  
 
In addition, this marks an important shift in thinking about the funding of Jewish education. Sadly, too many feel the cost should be borne by those who use the system. This is not how the public system is funded, nor should it be how Jewish education is funded. As Paula Gottesman stated, “Just as people pay taxes for public schools - and no one would say we shouldn’t do that - the Jewish community should tax itself for the education of our children. Our collective future should be the responsibility of the collective community,”.
 
What is good for New Jersey is good for Canada, especially Toronto. Not only does Toronto have the largest Jewish community in Canada, but in four other provinces, the government funds much of the general education program, resulting in much lower (albeit still much too high) tuition costs. This may go a long way in explaining why in Toronto approximately 32% of Jewish children are enrolled in the day school system, compared to almost 60% in Montreal. While a similar program was launched at Robbins Hebrew Academy capping tuition at 15% of income, it was limited to those with three children enrolled at RHA and did not include high school - thus, its practical impact has been extremely limited.  
 
I would like to propose a variation of the New Jersey model, though would be thrilled if that model were adopted here. Let us cap tuition at 5% of income - regardless of the number of children per family. At the same time families who benefit would be asked to purchase a one million dollar life insurance policy. Over time, those thousands of policies would yield billions of dollars. At the same time I call upon all in the community - whether or not you have, or had, children in the system - to commit to contributing via insurance or one of many other methods to help support this much needed initiative. 
 
To allow the program to begin I urge the leading philanthropists in the city to provide bridge financing - either by grant or even by way of a loan - to allow the necessary time for the program to become self sufficient. The enormous wealth available to many makes this most doable.  
 
Change can happen only when there is public pressure to do so. In that vein, whether you are a day school parent willing to purchase a life insurance policy for a greatly reduced tuition bill or a concerned community member who cares about Jewish education and are willing to contribute, please email me at rabbijay@torahinmotion.org. I look forward to receiving a minimum of 1,000 emails in the coming days - thus ensuring that real and permanent changes will be in the offing.