The humiliating process of the tuition subsidy application

Students at a Jewish day school. Applying for a subsidy can be degrading, the writer says.

GUEST VOICE:  I want to send my kids to a Jewish day school. I truly believe in the value day schools bring. And yet, this past summer, I found myself preparing for the arduous process that is the tuition subsidy application. I understand the complexities involved and the need for a thorough process in determining how a limited amount of funds can be distributed fairly, and I truly believe most of the individuals involved want the process to be resolved amicably and discreetly. 

Still, having gone through this process multiple times, I find it humiliating and degrading.  

Unfortunately, my kids really like Jewish day school. I say unfortunately, because my life would be so much simpler if they didn’t like the Jewish schools they attend. I wouldn’t have to go through the process of submitting form after form of financial information to a committee that has developed a seemingly arbitrary, confidential process for determining the very subjective question of affordability. I feel extremely exposed and degraded, and I know there are thousands of parents who feel the same – there are probably thousands more who won’t send their kids to Jewish schools because of this process. I also know there are people who circumvent the system with some creative accounting in order to get subsidies.  

What irks me is that some of the very values our schools ought to be upholding are being ignored during this process. Despite submitting a lengthy statement detailing the reasons why I requested a subsidy, and submitting a full income tax return, including copies of my pay stubs, property tax assessment, RRSP contributions, and the model and year of my car, the tuition committee cannot practise b’tzedek tishpot amitecha  – judge your fellow righteously – and actually believe me.  

Subsidies are calculated in a way that is unclear. It seem the goal is for people to pay the maximum that they can, and therein lies one of the major issues, as that amount can differ depending on your perspective and how you crunch the numbers. 

It is a shameful experience. Am I not truthful in the documents I have submitted? Have I not acquiesced to every request of the school and Jewish federation in providing my private information? Yet the school insists that I have to present myself like someone accused who must defend himself, and then it determines an amount unilaterally that I must agree to or else withdraw my kids from Jewish day school.

Every May, I have to take some perverse walk of shame, sit in a classroom in front of two people, who I will very likely see again, and like a dysfunctional courtroom in which I am guilty until proven innocent, argue why I don’t have the financial means I wish I did. It is profoundly degrading, and I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone.  The entire process empowers the school and disempowers the individual.

And there are ripple effects beyond the colonoscopy-like experience. 

I may actually need a new car or to fix something in the house, but I’m reticent to do so because the tuition committee may claim that as a result of leasing a new car, I am now able to pay more –  which is illogical, considering I have just spent more money on something else. 

More disheartening is the fact that this process can evoke resentment toward my religion, and even, just a tiny bit, my own children. The experience reminds me of the passage from the Passover Haggadah – “V’et amaleinu, elah habanim” – “And our affliction, it is our children.” It is only for them that I would subject myself to this degradation. But I resent it.

We are stuck in a place where the battle regarding the definition of affordability is decidedly one-sided – where the individual must literally prove his financial ineptitude and is powerless in a process that seems to seek to confuse, discourage and define what a Jewish family is or is not financially capable of paying for tuition. As a parent of two little children, I find this profoundly problematic.  

There are ways to examine the process involved in determining the need and degree for financial assistance and make adjustments – both minor and major –  to empower the individual in the process, ensure there are checks and balances and avoid unilateralism in determining affordability, promoting discretion, and above all ensure that the process, while thorough, is user-friendly enough to encourage people to send their kids to Jewish schools. We must ensure the long-term viability of the day school system for all Jewish families now. The status quo is no longer good enough. 

Zev Steinfeld is a teacher in Toronto.