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Dwindling affordability puts day schools at crossroads

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Rabbi Lee Buckman, head of the country’s largest Jewish high school, wonders how his own children will be able to send their kids to Jewish day school one day.

“I don’t know how people are going to afford Jewish day school or any private education in 10 or 15 years from now,” Rabbi Buckman, head of Toronto’s Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy said.

“I think the challenge all the day schools are going to face is day school affordability, which is tied to enrolment… That’s a long-term strategic challenge.”

Affordability and sustainability are closely tied together, educators agree. Raise fees too high and enrolment drops, starting a vicious circle as fewer parents shoulder greater tuition burdens. Cut programs to reduce fees and parents may walk away from day school education altogether.

READ: GRANDPARENTS SHOULD HELP OUT WITH DAY SCHOOL TUITION

Day school a barometer

Day school education is a barometer of the Jewish community’s viability and “the most important investment that a Jewish community can make in its future,” according to the group Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education (GAJE), an advocacy group that was started two years ago in Toronto to put affordability problems and solutions on the community’s agenda.

About one-third of Toronto Jewish children attend a day school (and half attend either day or supplementary school). In Montreal, where the proportion of ultra-Orthodox children is higher, 56 per cent of Jewish children attend day school. Without the ultra-Orthodox, it’s 39 per cent.

The issue of day school education becoming unaffordable looms large, GAJE says.

“We can’t give up. [The tuition issue] is too important, and we have a community responsibility to fix the system,” says Jeffrey Stutz, who chairs GAJE’s committee on funding (it also has legal/political action and marketing committees). “It needs fixing. The trends are that tuition is rising much faster than incomes are rising.”

Between 2001 and 2011, tuition increased by 61 per cent, while household income grew by just 10 per cent, according to UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

The problem is “ubiquitous,” said Rabbi Buckman, who has worked at day schools in Detroit and Atlanta and has served as a consultant for the non-profit Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. But nowhere does it seem as acute as in Toronto, where skyrocketing home prices are forcing some young families to choose paying off mortgages over tuition.

READ: WE MUST MAKE DAY SCHOOL AFFORDABLE FOR THE MIDDLE CLASS

The problem by province

Ontario day school parents also pay the full cost of education, with no provincial support. In 2007, a promise to extend funding to religious schools cost then-Progressive Conservative leader John Tory the election when he made it a central plank in his platform. Since then, the issue has been dead in the water, although there have been some efforts made to get public funding for students with special health needs and school security issues.

In Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia, where provincial governments provide day schools with partial funding, Jewish high school tuition ranges from $10,000 to $17,000. TanenbaumCHAT’s tuition is $27,300 this year.

Administrators now talk of a “barbell effect,” with low earners who receive subsidies from the schools and UJA Federation at one end and the wealthy at the other. Those in the middle – who earn from $150,000 to $300,000 and would normally be considered relatively affluent, but can’t afford the $350,000 federation estimates it will cost in tuition for each of their children from kindergarten to Grade 12 – are increasingly not enrolling their kids.

“As tuition increases outpace inflation and household income without a means to reduce the tuition burden, middle income families are leaving the system, and even more concerning, not choosing day school education,” notes UJA Federation’s 2015-2020 strategic plan.

Enrolment decline, sustainability, spiralling costs

Some believe the cracks are already showing.

TanenbaumCHAT has seen enrolment decline by 37 per cent, from a high of 1,530 students eight years ago to 966, on two campuses this year. Leo Baeck Day School’s north campus, which has also struggled with enrolment numbers, is selling its school building and will begin sharing space with TanenbaumCHAT’s northern campus in September.

‘We can’t give up.The tuition issue is too important, and we have a community responsibility to fix the system’

But despite the challenges, for some schools, sustainability is less of a concern.  At Bialik Hebrew Day School, a Zionist elementary school, enrolment topped 1,000 students on two campuses for the first time this year, said head of school Shanna Harris.

The school offers subsidies to parents, using grant money from UJA Federation and its own internal fundraising, Harris said.

READ: THE DAY SCHOOL TUITION CRISIS REACHING A TIPPING POINT

It opted out of a federation-sponsored pilot project that capped tuition fees for middle-income families entering the school, because it was only available for the school’s northern campus. “We felt that was somewhat inequitable to our families,” she said.

Keeping day schools affordable has been identified as a priority by UJA Federation in Toronto. About $10 million of the $60 million that federation raises annually goes to day school subsidies. Because subsidies are allocated according to student need, larger schools receive more than others. Smaller schools, in particular, have raised questions about the transparency of the process.

When administrators talk about making day school affordable, and by extension, sustainable, they take two tacks.

The first is to focus on spiralling costs.

UJA Federation’s Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education began looking at schools’ costs and comparing them to each other and their private and public counterparts two years ago. That data is still being analyzed, said Evan Mazin, the centre’s director of educational finance.

About 80 per cent of any school’s costs are for salaries and human resources. As day schools “professionalize” those costs have risen, said Rabbi Buckman.

When alumni come back to visit TanenbaumCHAT, they say it looks like a “real school,” noticing the new engineering and robotics program, arts and music classes, business leadership programs and a wider variety of sports teams, he said.

None of this comes cheaply, and schools may not be able to maintain the extensive offerings they now provide, Rabbi Buckman said.

“In the same way that parents and kids made do with less years ago, that may be where we have to return in order to deliver an excellent product that people can afford,” he said. “If you value economic diversity, you’ve got to figure out how to do this.”

The second approach to tackling affordability is to target middle-income families and put more money, and students, into the system, with a variety of tuition caps, that limit tuition to a percentage of total income, payment plans and other incentives.

A variety of approaches is essential, Stutz said, noting “there’s not one silver bullet” to deal with affordability problems.

Reversing trends

A few years ago, Montreal’s Federation CJA began a large-scale program aimed at getting middle-income parents into day school and reversing a trend of declining enrolment.

The Generations Fund offers tuition freezes and income caps to middle-income families. Parents can use an anonymous online calculator to see if they qualify. The program is also extended to some Jewish summer camps.

An extra $1,800 is available to qualifying parents with children entering kindergarten and Grade 7, critical years when parents are deciding whether to start or continue in day school, said Natana Shek, director of the fund.

A $50-million endowment fund, which was raised as new money that was not part of the federation’s annual campaign, makes up the difference and covers tuition increases for schools. Additional funds have also been given to schools to conduct searches for heads of school, hire directors of admission and development and add programs that will attract students.

The fund, which started in 2009, attempts to end the vicious cycle of shrinking enrolment numbers of full-paying students supporting subsidies and the cost of running schools that aren’t at capacity, says Shek.

“You have the increased revenue per student through the formula that we created, and then you have more income in the schools, which is then being used to invest in excellence, which is then attracting more full-paying and high-partially- paying customers,” she said. The program has kept enrolment in Montreal schools stable, even as the overall number of Jewish children in the city has declined. Enrolment in kindergarten and Grade 7 has increased, she said.

“That’s a really, really encouraging sign,” she said. “After we get them [students] in, we say to the school ‘It’s your responsibility to keep them there. You have to make the quality of the experience excellent for them. You have to retain them.’”

In Toronto, federation has experimented at a few schools with tuition caps and with a deferred payment plan that would allow parents to spread high school tuition payments out over time.

“Together with the schools, we hope to expand these important initiatives over time to further strengthen the sustainability and affordability of the system,” said federation president and CEO Adam Minsky.

(Federation’s strategic plan calls for raising increased funding for education, but UJA declined to comment if Toronto would see a new endowment fund like Montreal’s.)

But not everyone believes that putting more money into the system is a good idea.

Sam Mendelsohn is a parent of two young children, one in day school and one about to start soon. His greatest worry, he said, is that if tuition continues to spiral, one day he might have to pull his kids away from friends and a school they love if it becomes unaffordable.

Mendelsohn, vice-president of a software company who went to day school himself, argues that schools continued to add staff, programs and facilities as forecasts showed the number of school-age children was declining.

“I call it not looking out for parents’ wallets,” he said. “If they were running with proper plans, from a proper financial perspective, then they wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Blaming the high cost of housing, and asking for more funding is simply skirting the problem, he believes. “Until they [schools] say we need to fix things from the inside out, I don’t think it’s sustainable or viable.

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