"Bringing Hope through Torah" ATIME Shas-a-Thon 5776

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By: Dave Gordon

Community leaders all agree on one thing: the money’s out there, but people aren’t giving.

That’s the implied consensus amongst several key individuals working to avert what many are calling the tuition crisis.

“The topic of tuition is perhaps the most serious of all issues confronting our community and families. It is taking a toll on shalom bayit and increasing the amount of stress families have on a day to day basis,” asserts Michael Jemal, of theSassoon Children's Fund.  Jemal says he has spoken with many individuals, through formal meetings and casual talks, to hear their ideas about how to deal with the problem.

“There are no bad initiatives,” Mr. Jemal states. “At the very least, raising awareness by itself is an accomplishment. I don't know that there is any one solution that will resolve this issue.”

Those with only a passing knowledge of the overall struggle might already be aware of the funding ideas that often are suggested: government subsidy or tax breaks, life insurance policies, wills/bequests, donations, alumni solicitations, philanthropic donations, and fundraisers.

Jemal also noted that another idea is to have all community members donate small sums on an ongoing basis, and to pool the resources.

Yet another solution to the tuition crisis is to allow families to defer the payment of tuition for decades, mortgage-style. So rather than parents paying discounted tuition over the course of twelve years, they would do so over the course of twenty or thirty, so as to completely pay off the full tuition over time.

“This by itself is not a solution, but may ease some of the stress and tension associated with meeting the day to day obligations and spreading the costs over a longer period of time,” Jemal states.

The government funding system, whereby the government provides funding directly to parochial schools, has had much success across the US, in parts of Canada, and in other countries. The question remains how to encourage political representatives to present proposals for funding community schools, and in what way.  One parent in the community says that marketing the idea of the government providing funding for our schools should be our primary concern.

“The issue shouldn’t be labeled as ‘school funding,’ or ‘religious school funding,’ but rather ‘fair funding.’ We want fairness and I think that resonates deeply with everyone,” the community member stated.

So if every child is legally entitled to receive the government’s support for the three Rs’ – reading, writing and arithmetic – “that should apply across the board, to every student, and not exclude the ones learning in the ‘wrong building,” the community member added.

It’s easy to find allies with other religious institutions and private schools – including non-Jewish ones - who share common goals.  “Our social mores frown upon religious discrimination, yet one can’t help but see that religious schools are the ones being excluded from government assistance,” the community member concluded.

Around the World

The UN’s International Human Rights Committee, a non-partisan judiciary, has ruled that refusal to fund a child’s education is discriminatory.

Other countries around the world have employed the idea of fairness for all.

In Flemish Belgium, for instance, the government pays for any school the parents want to send their child to – and this has been a real success.

The Fraser Institute, a non-governmental, non-partisan research group reported, “Equal funding for both public and private schools has improved educational opportunity and performance in Sweden.”

The Local Challenge

Our challenge is about finding ways to pay for, and offset, costs. Those parents already paying tuition are being asked to squeeze more, and philanthropists complain that they’re always the ones shouldering the biggest, and most frequent burden.

Once parents see their children through day school, then they are paying for college, followed by weddings.  After that they are being solicited once again to donate to schools that their children have graduated from long ago.

One insider noted that, going back hundreds of years, up until recent decades, there was no shortage of global examples of schools that were entirely underwritten by a single philanthropist. He puts forth the idea that philanthropists today could do the same, or partner with others, to cover the costs of teachers’ salaries, allowing for minimal tuition.

Joe Shamie, CEO of Delta Enterprises, was behind the United Children’s Education Fund (UCEF) ads that Community ran encouraging people to give to our schools.  He is on the committee for Project Education. He says that the organization is not representing any particular school, and is reviewing any and all possible plans to improve the situation.

UCEF recently took out full page ads in Community, encouraging people to bolster the community’s bulk buying power by collaborating with certain vendors. Shamie suggested instituting hakarot hatov agreements, whereby those taking tuition assistance would agree to give back to the schools at a later part of their life, if they were capable.

Another idea Shamie thought was worth pursing is a real estate trust, which could be set up to bring in long term revenue.

“What we’re trying to do is change the culture of the community, to try to encourage people to give to the schools,” asserts Albert Laboz.  Mr. Laboz plays a lead role in the Project Education team, and stresses that most schools are operating in a fiscally responsible way.

Meanwhile, Sarina Roffé, the executive director of Project Education, who has been overseeing it since its inception, five years ago, presents a sobering point: “The cost of tuition for a family with four children is $100,000 a year, which is more than most people earn!”  It is therefore not surprising that one noted area yeshiva provides $12 million in assistance each year, according to Roffé.

In order to provide some relief, Project Education is encouraging the unification of area yeshiva applications to simplify the fees assistance process.  Roffé says that her organization also is working on procuring tax deductions for tuition costs.

Roffé notes that a combination of factors has contributed to the worsening of the tuition crisis of late. Roffé gives the example of the interplay between culture and values she saw exhibited in a recent study.  Project Education conducted the study with a marketing firm, which polled a thousand respondents from schools and synagogues. “While everyone believed that every Jewish child must have a Jewish education,” Roffé said, “We found a generational problem. The older generation believes that a Jewish education is a communal responsibility. The younger generation does not agree. They don’t believe the haves should have to pay for the have nots.”

Roffé cites two additional problems to be addressed.  One is the not uncommon occurrence where families take elaborate vacations, rather than scaling down and finding room in their budget for tzedekah. And finally, one painful area for the schools themselves, Roffé says, is the notion that it makes people more comfortable to donate if they knew there was more financial transparency.  Schools might address this by issuing annual reports, “and being more forthcoming with their finances,” Roffé stated.

Closing Thoughts

We conclude with the following thoughts from Joe Shamie. “Our community’s values are at risk. Everyone needs to step up the plate. Everyone seems to think they can sit on the sidelines, and it’s not for them to solve the problem. But everyone can solve the problem, whether it’s a billionaire or the guy who’s making a fair income.  Everyone needs to say, ‘What can we do?’ rather than, ‘What can we get away with doing?’ The community will suffer if we don’t act. It comes down to responsibility and doing the right thing.”

The Rational Reasons Behind Fair Funding

Below are a few of the popular misconceptions, misunderstandings and objections that have been heard on the topic of fair funding.
Complaint:  If all 400,000 non-public school students in New York State received $5,000 from the government each year, where’s that $2,000,000,000 going to come from? What will be cut to fund this?
Answer: The money would have to be there if all of the kids going to independent schools decided to attend public school. New York is huge absorber of immigrants, and we never tell them that there’s not enough money to pay for their education.
Conclusion: The fair funding proposal means that the tax money the government gets that would have been spent on education, gets spent on education.

Complaint: Won’t the removal of two billion dollars affect the economy and government spending?
Answer: The government is simply moving money around to fund the independent schools, and the economy in some sectors will actually improve because families will have extra spending money. Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, might tell you that the same $2,000,000,000 will be re-injected into the economy in other expenditures. Maybe that’ll be college tuition, instead of another day school tuition loan. Or maybe that’ll be money used to start a new business.
Conclusion: The economy will be as stimulated as it was before, only with different – and prioritized - spending.

Complaint: No religious schools should be funded, because it’s not the state’s business.
Answer: Fair funding should not violate the wall of church/state separation. I think that clause essentially prevents the state from imposing its agenda on religious institutions.
Conclusion: The state should sponsor the secular education of every child. Just because a child learns in the “wrong” building doesn’t mean he or she should be robbed of fair funding.