Last March, I described two parallel challenges facing Jewish day schools: financial sustainability and affordability. I wrote the article at the beginning of a research project studying the landscape of interventions designed to address the financial challenges facing Jewish day schools, day school parents and day school funders.
Nearly a year later, the project has resulted in a report published by the Jewish Funders Network, designed to share knowledge, spark conversation and ignite innovation in the work to make Jewish day schools both financially sustainable and affordable.
As I wrote then, day schools face two interrelated challenges. Sustainability is the long-term financial viability of the school – balancing its budget year after year and being able to withstand short- and long-term financial challenges including the steady demand for increased financial assistance and the need to invest in a quality educational program. Affordability is parents’ perception of cost and value. It’s a factor in both the perceived value and the cost of tuition in relation to a realistic assessment of household disposable income.
While the sticker shock of tuition can be startling, of greater long-term concern, is that average day school tuition across North America has risen at a steady rate of three per cent a year since 2009, a rate significantly higher than increases in household income and inflation.
Faced with the reality of these challenges, schools and communities across the United States and Canada have taken bold steps to reframe the revenue and expense sides of day school budgets. Roughly, these initiatives can be placed into five categories: controlling costs, determining and reaching capacity, communal collaboration, middle income initiatives and endowment building.
The creativity is impressive. School leaders are examining every aspect of their operations from admissions to fundraising, tuition to staffing. Among other initiatives, they are using technology to drive new models of teaching, setting tuition at a percentage of household income, sharing back offices and capitalizing on economies of scale, and building communal funds to offset the burden on parents.
Studying these initiatives, their benefits to day schools and the challenges in their implementation reveals that while many are worthwhile and have a marked impact on school budgets, none is a silver bullet. Significantly moving the needle in the costs and funding of day schools will require substantive changes both in the ways we deliver education and in the ways we fund the costs of this education.
Where does this leave us? While this prognosis could be seen as bleak, it’s not. New, bold ideas are needed, but these innovations can only grow out of the substantive and creative work undertaken thus far. I am excited that the tenor of the conversation has moved from one lamenting the costs of day schools, to one proactively dreaming of and experimenting with innovative solutions. These collaborative and creative movements are a key first step toward moving the needle.
The intense, immersive nature of day schools make them the gold standard in Jewish education, increasing graduates’ knowledge, shaping their identity and informing their future as communal leaders. But it is also this intensity that makes day school education expensive. We must continue to learn from the experience of the field and think collaborative and creatively.