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The unequal cost of Jewish education in Canada

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Many Canadian Jews know the value of a Jewish education. A recent survey found that nearly half the population attended a full-time Jewish school at some point in their lives. But the cost of that education can be prohibitively expensive in some cities – something that local federations have been trying to change.

Toronto’s Jewish day school landscape has changed a lot in the past few years, most notably with the 2017 closing of the northern campus of TanenbaumCHAT. But that decision was actually part of a larger plan to help supplement the cost of Jewish education at the school.

TanenbaumCHAT’s tuition rate was around $28,000 before the change was made, but it was dropped to $18,500 the following year, thanks to gifts totalling
$14 million, as well as the consolidation of the two campuses.

According to Daniel Held, the executive director of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education, enrolment has increased by about 70 per cent since making the change. He said the two campuses combined had something like 175 Grade 9 students in the last year before the northern branch closed. Held said TanenbaumCHAT expects to welcome more than 300 students to Grade 9 this year when school begins.

“It clearly points to the fact that there’s pent-up demand, right? There are students who want to go into your schools and parents who want to send their kids to Jewish schools. And with the right initiatives and the right philanthropy, we can enable that to happen,” said Held. “It’s about serving those families who really want to have a Jewish education for their kids, and making that possible for them.”

The “right initiatives and the right philanthropy” are strategies used by Jewish communities throughout the country that want to support their Jewish day schools, but they take on an even greater importance in Ontario. That’s because the provincial government there doesn’t offer any funding for private schools. That means parents who want their children to receive an alternative education, such as a religious one, are on the hook for the full price – unless private donors or organizations, like UJA Federation, step up to the plate. According to Held, it’s worth the cost.

“It looks toward the future and says, ‘How can we have the strongest, most vibrant, most vital Jewish community?’ And decades, if not centuries, of research and experience shows that by educating our kids today, we strengthen the community of the future, we create both a knowledgeable and passionate community and we also create empowered leaders,” he said. “That’s why investing in education is so important for UJA and for our community in general.”

READ: THE NEW FACE OF ADULT JEWISH EDUCATION

In some other Canadian cities with large Jewish communities, provincial governments help foot part of the bill. In Quebec, for example, Jewish day schools receive a per student allocation that amounts to 60 per cent of the funding that public schools get for their students.

Federation CJA in Montreal also runs two concurrent programs to help support Jewish day schools, called Tuition Assistance Allocation (TAA) and the Generations Fund Creating Access Promoting Success (CAPS), said Federation CJA employees Leah Berger and Natana Shek in a joint response to emailed questions from The CJN.

With an annual budget of $3 million, TAA provides funding for 13 day schools in Montreal. The schools then assess the needs of their students and decide how to best use those funds.

CAPS provides grants directly to schools, as well as tuition freezes to help families pay for their children’s schooling costs. Since launching the CAPS program in 2012, Federation CJA has seen a marked increase in the number of students in the Jewish day school system.

While tuition costs vary among schools, Montreal’s Bialik High School, the largest Jewish high school in the province, lists its tuition at $14,610.

British Columbia, Manitoba and Alberta also provide partial funding to some private schools. But that policy may be revisited soon in B.C., said Russ Klein, head of school at King David High School in Vancouver, which is why he declined to comment directly on the matter. At the moment, however, King David charges $19,650 per year.

In Manitoba, the funding situation appears to be more stable. Lori Binder, head of school and CEO of Gray Academy of Jewish Education in Winnipeg, is confident that the valuable funding her school receives from the province will remain intact, calling changes from the government on that front “highly unlikely.”

“In the province of Manitoba, there are thousands of students that attend independent schools,” she said. “So it’s really the notion of supporting parent choice, and it’s been going on for decades in our province.”

The Government of Manitoba provides Gray Academy with 50 per cent of the money that it allocates to its public school students. That allows it to keep tuition at $10,800 for all of its students, from kindergarten to Grade 12. Without the provincial funding, tuition would cost around $16,000, Binder said.

There are a few regulations the school needs to abide by, like following the provincial syllabus and having longer hours to make up for missed time for Jewish holidays. But Binder doesn’t see that as an issue. In fact, because of the dual curriculum, “our students end up graduating with more provincial credits, generally, than their peers in public schools,” she said. “So it’s actually a benefit.”

Likewise, in Alberta, the Calgary Jewish Academy, which goes up to Grade 9 and receives some funding from the provincial government and the local federation, charges $12,650 per year.

Jeffrey Stutz, a volunteer with the advocacy group Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education, said that surveys conducted by UJA Federation have found that tuition costs are the biggest barrier to enrolment in the day school system in Toronto.

Data shows that lower tuition rates can have a big impact. Stutz said that just under 30 per cent of Jewish students in Toronto attend day schools, compared to Montreal’s rate, which he estimated at around 55 per cent.

“If Ontario funded even half the cost of general studies in the day schools, the impact would be huge. It’s not a radical idea – five other provinces in Canada do this,” he said.  

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