Failing our children, failing the future

Failing our children, failing the future

As a Jewish community, we are a collective failure when it comes to providing our children a decent Jewish education. As a community, our claim to be concerned for the Jewish future rings all too hollow because of this failure. The future can be secured only by what is done in the present on its behalf. We do precious little for our future.

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day Specifically, we as a community must take an active role in every aspect of the Jewish education system, from keeping class sizes manageable, to hiring the best educators available, to providing cutting-edge resources and teacher support, to maintaining well-endowed scholarship funds so that cost is never a factor in whether a Jewish child receives a Jewish education.

If you are inclined to say you have heard this before, you are correct. Our failure to act earlier, however, has thrown our community into crisis.

Day-school tuition has reached beyond the acceptable. Indeed, the cumulative costs of a day school education can probably buy a house in an expensive neighborhood of Teaneck. These schools (and yeshivot with strong secular education components) remain the best possible way to guarantee that the next generation of American Jews will be knowledgeable, committed Jews and good Americans. Yet five-figure fees per student put day schools out of the reach of too many families. Add on building funds, transportation costs, annual dinners, journal ads, and the like, and even fewer parents can afford it.

Many parents, especially in the Orthodox communities in Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson counties, mortgage everything to send their children to day schools. They should not have to do so. No parent should ever be put in the position of deciding on whether to educate a child Jewishly based on ability to pay.

Not only is the high cost of day school education bordering on the scandalous, the quality of that education is deteriorating. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that, in some schools at least, ability to pay the tuition is of greater import than a child’s academic achievements.

The after-school programs are the next best hope to provide a quality Jewish education, but such schools (if they can even be called schools in many cases) are pitifully underfunded, woefully understaffed, and deplorably under-resourced. “Quality education” all too often does not even enter into it even when the will to provide it is there, which sadly is not always the case.

Our tendency, of course, is to turn to the local federation to solve such problems. That did not work even in the halcyon days of yesteryear. Federations – ours and every other – have many other worthy institutions, projects, and programs to fund, including hospitals, nursing homes, meals-on-wheels for shut-ins, family services, and so on. In the best of times, the federations could do only so much. These are not the best of times.

The only solution was and remains for the Jewish community to step in and take over the entire educational system and turn it into the best system possible. This could be done under federation aegis, but it would be better as an independent entity with quality education as its only mandate.

There is much that full community control over its Jewish educational system can do.

A community solution for after-school programs, for example, would merge the struggling non-Orthodox Hebrew schools in several contiguous communities into a single school. The higher number of students and the pooled resources would dramatically improve the quality of education. The ideological differences that exist among the streams represented in the merged school could be handled to everyone’s satisfaction. An Orthodox colleague has even suggested that these schools be housed in local day schools. “Their staffs should overlap,” he said, thereby “providing extra income” for hard-pressed Jewish educators and keeping a readily available pool of substitute teachers handy. Besides, he noted, shared facilities would cut expenses.

Costs can be reduced at day schools by communal oversight. For example, education standards can be imposed on all of the day schools in the area. These would include absolute secular education standards and basic religious education standards, with each school augmenting the latter to meet its own ideological needs.

This would enable such things as purchasing top-rated textbooks at great savings. All of the schools – day schools and the after-school programs – could also benefit from coop purchasing of cleaning supplies, food for lunch programs, and perhaps even utilities and janitorial services.

Much of the administration of the schools (obviously excluding the ideological) could be handled from a central location as well, thereby cutting those costs. Perhaps classes could be scheduled in such a way that some teachers could be shared (ideally resulting in a pool of highly skilled professional teachers who are paid competitive salaries and benefits).

Day schools and after-school programs that refuse to participate in the communal structure would be free to do so; they just would not be eligible for any communal funds.

Creating a central educational entity would also allow the community to set tuitions and collect them (including setting “family rates” for families with more than one child in the system); provide a standard system for granting scholarships to children whose parents cannot afford the tuition; eliminate the need for parents with children in more than one school to pay separate building funds; and centralize fund-raising efforts. The central entity could also be used to bring together children from the different ideological streams for joint activities. My Orthodox colleague suggests joint Lag B’omer outings as one example of what could be done.

For the record, this is not a modern notion. An education system financed and run by the local Jewish community was mandated nearly 2,000 years ago. Class size was regulated – one teacher for every 25 students, with a teaching assistant required when classes grow beyond that but do not yet reach 50, which would require a second teacher. “Busing” of sorts was also required, as was teacher accountability. (All of this and more is found in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Batra 21a and b.)

This obligation to establish schools in each locale is so important that Maimonides would see communities destroyed for failing to do so (see his Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Torah Study, 2:1).

This is a harsh prescription, to be sure, but unless we as a community do something and soon, it is a prescription almost certain to be filled.

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