The five per cent day school tuition solution

Rabbi Jay Kelman

With the busy Yom Tov season, I wouldn’t be surprised if many missed what is potentially the most significant Jewish news story of the year. I’m referring to the announcement that four Jewish day schools in New Jersey will be capping tuition fees at a maximum of 18 per cent of income, regardless of the number of children in a family. 

This new program, which is in addition to any tuition breaks already in place for lower-income families, is aimed at middle-class families – those earning between $150,000 and $325,000, an income level many can only dream of, yet doesn’t allow many to pay the crippling costs of tuition. This initiative is being made possible by a gift from the Gottesman Family Foundation. Even better, each of the four schools involved have enhanced the program by capping tuition at even lower rates for those earning “only” in the $250,000 range.

This initiative will first and foremost lower the burden for those who desire the basic right to give their children a Jewish education. The enormous cost of day school education not only prevents many from attending, it has caused many Jewish babies not to be born. While there is little statistical information available, it’s well known among middle-income families that day school tuition is the best form of birth control. 

In addition, this marks an important shift in thinking about funding Jewish education. Sadly, too many feel the cost should be borne by those who use the system. This isn’t how the public system is funded, nor should it be how Jewish education is funded. As Paula Gottesman stated, “Just as people pay taxes for public schools – and no one would say we shouldn’t do that – the Jewish community should tax itself for the education of our children. Our collective future should be the responsibility of the collective community.”

What is good for New Jersey is good for Canada, and especially Toronto. Not only does Toronto have the largest Jewish community in Canada, but in four other provinces, the government funds much of the Jewish day schools’ general education program, resulting in much lower, albeit still much too high, tuition. This may go a long way toward explaining why in Toronto, 32 per cent of Jewish children attend Jewish day schools, compared to almost 60 per cent in Montreal. While a similar program was launched at Toronto’s Robbins Hebrew Academy capping tuition at 15 per cent of income, it was limited to those with three children at RHA and didn’t include high school, making its practical impact extremely limited.  

I’d like to propose a variation of the New Jersey model, though I’d be thrilled if that model were adopted here. Let’s cap tuition at five per cent of income, regardless of the number of children per family. At the same time, families who benefit would be asked to purchase a $1-million life insurance policy. Over time, thousands of policies would yield billions of dollars. At the same time, I call upon everyone in the community – whether or not you have, or had, children in the day school system – to commit to contributing via insurance or one of many other methods to help support this much-needed initiative.

To get this program started, I urge leading philanthropists to provide bridge financing – either by grant or by way of a loan – to allow the program time to become self-sufficient. The enormous wealth in our community makes this very doable. 

Change can only come from public pressure, so whether you’re a day school parent willing to purchase a life insurance policy in exchange for greatly reduced tuition or a concerned community member who cares about Jewish education and want to contribute, please email me at [email protected]. I look forward to receiving at least 1,000 emails in the coming days, to ensure that real and permanent changes are in the offing.