Putting our money where our mouths are

Putting our money where our mouths are

Do we really believe that every Jewish child is entitled to a yeshiva education?

Ask this question to just about anybody in our community, and the answer is a resounding yes

But the truth is that we don’t really believe it, as evidenced by the fact that we as a community refuse to fund it. It’s a classic case of being for something as long as someone else is paying for it.

Once upon a time, our schools were able to raise enough money from voluntary donations for financial aid (commonly referred to as scholarships). It has been several years, though, since that has been possible, and now schools have to include a subsidy for families that can’t afford to pay as part of the full tuition paid by the rest of the parent body.

In the past few years, the percentage of students on scholarship has gone from less than 20 to almost 30, and that trend is likely to continue. That means that an even greater percentage of tuition dollars will go toward financial aid in the future.

Besides the obvious unsustainability of this financial model, it is also unfair and inefficient, as I will discuss below.

Before I propose a real solution, let me explain several key reasons why the current scholarship system is broken and ought be revamped. In no particular order:

1) The financial burden is shared unequally. If my neighbor can’t afford to send his or her child to the school I send my kids to, why should the mere fact that I have a child in that school make me more responsible than other community members for my neighbor children’s tuition? Moreover, the more children I have in the school – and as is often the case, the less I can afford it – the more I have to subsidize it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think that we should raise funds for families that can’t afford full tuition. It’s just that it’s no more the obligation of other families in a particular school than it is the responsibility of any family in the community, whether or not they have children in that school. This is actually how the public school system in America works. Whether I have zero kids or 10 kids going to public school does not affect how much I pay. Communities are responsible to ensure that all children have access to an education.

2) Tuition payments are made with after-tax dollars. Voluntary donations are made with pre-tax dollars. It is simply crazy to fund our shortfalls this way. If I as a community member have to donate $1,000 (just to make the math easy, it is already far more in many schools) to pay for children of families that can’t afford to pay in full, then by forcing that money from me as part of an obligatory tuition payment, it costs me the full $1,000. If I were to give it voluntarily, it would cost me only $600 to $750, depending on my marginal tax bracket.

To put it another way, donors could give a lot more to schools if the money were given voluntarily instead of being built into tuition.

Let me clarify this absurdity by citing another communal charity. We have a wonderful organization here in our community called Tomchei Shabbos, which provides food packages to families who otherwise could not afford food for Shabbes. It is funded entirely by voluntary donations. I think we would all agree that it is a worthwhile program.

If we operated this program the way our schools operate scholarships, we would ask all kosher food stores to raise prices to pay for those who can’t afford it. Does that make any sense? Of course not! But that’s what we are doing with our scholarship policies. This is very inefficient. We should strive to move to a system of financial aid that relies on voluntary contributions.

3) Our schools have what is known as a needs-blind policy, meaning that a school will accept any child regardless of that child’s parents’ ability to pay tuition. This might sound generous and praiseworthy, but in actuality it hurts our educational institutions’ long-term sustainability. This is for two reasons:

First of all, this policy has created a vicious cycle. Some percentage of families can’t afford to pay full tuition, so tuition is raised to cover that. The tuition raise causes even more families to seek financial aid, so tuition has to be raised further…. Taken to its logical conclusion, one day our day schools will no longer be able to sustain themselves financially.

We should not be fooled by tuition having remained virtually unchanged during the past few years. This was achieved through cost reductions that can’t be repeated without either delivering an inferior product or substantially changing the educational model.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, a needs-blind policy is a sure loser when it comes to fundraising. Donors are not stupid. By saying that you will admit every child, you are essentially telling donors that whether they give a sizeable gift or nothing at all, that won’t affect the amount available for financial aid.

By definition, having a needs-blind policy requires a school to give out what is needed, regardless of how much they raise. And as I pointed out, the difference is made up in the tuition line.

Let’s go back to the Tomchei Shabbos example. A couple of years ago, it made a plea to the community, saying that it was short on funds, and without increased donations, it simply couldn’t meet the demand. Guess what? The community stepped up and raised the needed funds. Why? Because the community values the idea of providing Shabbes meals for those who can’t afford it, and they knew that if people didn’t respond generously, there would be families who literally would not have food for Shabbes.

When it comes to ensuring that all children have access to Jewish education, I believe that we are afraid to find out that our community is not willing to put their money where our mouths are.

4) The expectations of the average family today far exceed those of previous generations. Some families have a hard time distinguishing needs from wants, and as a result they are far too quick to apply for tuition relief instead of making difficult decisions about their own budgets. Despite their best efforts, scholarship committees can’t effectively dictate spending priorities to each family. Committees are made up of volunteers and work with scarce resources and imperfect information.

Furthermore, despite a worthwhile attempt several years ago to standardize requirements for families receiving financial aid, in practice scholarship committees have a wide range of procedures and policies on how to determine the appropriate amount of tuition relief to allocate to each family. Certainly every situation is different, but each scholarship committee will arrive at a different number for a given family, and it has not been unheard of for families to play schools off against one another in seeking the most attractive financial aid package. This also prevents schools from pushing too hard on any one family, fearing that they will shop for a better deal elsewhere.

Because the marginal cost of educating an additional child is near zero, it’s always better to take a child who pays something than to see that child go to another school. But this is a very shortsighted approach, because eventually schools will need more classes, a bigger building, more administrators, and so on.

Lastly, many scholarship applicant families have children in more than one school. While in general the relationship between scholarship committees is amicable, each one looks after its own best interests and tries to squeeze the maximum out of each family for its own institution.

Let me be clear. None of this is meant to criticize the members of these committees. They are made up of honorable and selfless people, who perform a thankless job. It is the system in which they are asked to operate that is broken.

For all these reasons, I believe that the time has come to change how we think about financial aid in our day schools.

I’m going to propose a solution that not only will solve the problem, but also will put our schools on a financially sustainable path going forward. I am certain that many will take issue with what I’m about to suggest, but I would ask people not just to critique my proposal, but if they find it unacceptable, to propose something else.

Doing nothing is not an option.

In that spirit, I present a three-pronged solution:

Part I – We should immediately centralize the financial aid process and ensure consistency among schools. There is no reason that each school should have its own separate scholarship committee. That is like saying that each kosher food store should decide on its own how much food every needy family requires. Both scenarios are equally illogical.

Schools are in the business of education, not of allocating charity dollars. We already have a great example in our community of such an approach – Project Ezra, which helps families get their financial houses in order, helps them find jobs, and so on. Imagine if that organization were split into several different parts, each one responsible for a subset of the community. It is doubtful that it would have accomplished even a fraction of the amazing work it has done.

This new central body would not be difficult to form. It initially can consist of the noble volunteers who now work on each school’s scholarship committee. There just has to be the will to create this committee. Every school would have to sacrifice for the common good.

This new entity would review all applications, determine the appropriate amount for each family, ensure consistency, and perhaps most importantly, be empowered to ensure that all families are doing their utmost to pay what they can.

Part II – We need to fund financial aid entirely through a communal fund. The mechanism for such a vehicle is already in place. NNJKIDS was founded four years ago as a communal charity to support Jewish education. While this fund has raised over $2 million over the past four years, that is but a small fraction of the almost $30 million in financial aid that our day schools have given out over that period. Only a small minority of our community has contributed, and even most of those who have participated have done so far below their means.

NNJKIDS must be elevated to become the only communal funding pot for financial aid to our families for Jewish education. It must be on par with other very worthy charities in our community, like Tomchei Shabbos, Project Ezra, and others. It will provide funds for scholarships only in consonance with the amount it raises. Like all other worthy causes, if it’s important enough to the community, we will step up and fund it. Time will tell whether we really do believe that every child is entitled to a Jewish education.

Part III – All yeshiva day schools should announce that within the next three years, they will reduce tuition to the average cost per student and get out of the scholarship business entirely. They will only accept children who pay in full, with those families who need aid getting it directly from the communal scholarship fund outlined above.

Why do I believe that taking this step is such a crucial piece of the puzzle? Because there are too many people who don’t feel the necessity of giving to Jewish education simply because they have absolutely no fear that children will be turned away from our day schools. That’s a result of the misguided needs-blind policy I mentioned above. So we have to make it clear to all that the only way we can keep giving every child a day school education is if we collectively raise enough money to make it possible.

All three of these pieces must be put in place immediately, because they are interdependent. Without tying the needs directly to fundraising, people won’t have the incentive to give. Without a common set of criteria and standards administrated by a central body, many people will not feel comfortable donating when they are not sure that their charity dollars are being allocated appropriately. And without a trusted vehicle to collect funds, none of this is possible.

Putting my plan in place in all likelihood will have other benefits as well. We would find out that there are many families who really could afford to pay in full but have difficulty differentiating between necessities and luxuries and therefore make poor choices. I do not think that most families are in this category, but it is a large enough minority to make a real difference.

But of course there would be many families who still couldn’t afford to pay full freight, even if they live very modestly, and even if they are charged at reduced rates. What happens if the community isn’t able to raise the funds to cover the combined need? Will some children find that they have been shut out from all day schools?

I’d like to believe that we as a community will step up and raise the required funds to ensure that every Jewish child can receive a Jewish education. But I obviously can’t be certain. And if we fall down in this arena, then we’ll have been kidding ourselves all along that we really have this value that every child is entitled to a Jewish education.

I have reached out to lay leaders and philanthropists in our community. The message I heard was loud and clear. There are many generous people who are capable of making seven or even eight figure gifts who really want to support Jewish education. But they won’t give until we get our financial house in order. Nobody wants to throw good money after bad, and these donors want to see real reform before they step up to the plate.

While what I’m suggesting might seem overly provocative or radical, the truth is that the leaders of our day schools have considered all three parts of this plan already. Many past and current presidents, board members, and other lay leaders support these ideas.

Why hasn’t any progress been made? It’s simple. We are comfortable with the status quo because that’s what we are used to. Change is hard. This system has been around for a long time. And when it was created many decades ago, maybe 5 percent of the population received aid. Today’s realities are far more complex, the needs are far greater, and a revamp of the system is in order.

So if you’re reading this and you agree with me, what can you do to help foster change? First and foremost, speak to your children’s school. Contact the president and executive board members. They all will have read this piece. Tell them that you agree with it, and that you want to see them act on it. If you’re giving to your school’s scholarship fund, insist that concrete steps are taken to move in the direction I’ve outlined before pledging this year.

You can also speak to the rabbi of your shul. Impress upon him the importance of taking these measures and of advocating that his congregants donate to such a centralized fund just as they advocate supporting other worthy local institutions.

Let me share one proactive step I’ve taken to make my voice heard, a step that I hope you will join me in supporting.

In the past, I have given generously to the scholarship fund at my children’s school. I no longer do so, because I came to realize that not only wasn’t my contribution making a positive impact, but it was making the problem even worse in the long run. I told the heads of the fundraising committee that I would happily donate three times what I used to give if they would revamp the system along the lines I’ve outlined here.

I look forward to the day when I can fulfill my pledge. I know many others who feel the same way.

We need to prioritize Jewish education with our charity dollars, and the proposal I made is the only way I see of getting there. Many approaches have been tried in the past, but none has been as comprehensive as what I’m suggesting.

I passionately believe that every Jewish family should contribute, each according to its financial means, to enable every Jewish child to receive a high-quality day school education. In order to ensure that this becomes a reality for future generations, I ask others to join me in urging our schools to adopt this proposal before they contribute further to existing scholarship funds.

Taking the steps I’ve outlined above as soon as possible will convince donors that we are serious about creating a sustainable financial model, that their dollars will go to those truly in need, and that their generosity will enable every Jewish child to receive the Jewish education he or she so rightly deserves. We then will collectively open our hearts and our wallets and give generously to ensure the survival and viability of our educational institutions, and ultimately of our community.

Gershon Distenfeld lives in Bergenfield. The opinions expressed above are his own and are not necessarily those of the organizations or institutions he is involved with.