Tuition support: is it a matter of ethics?

Young parents feel weighed down by high tuition fees, says the author SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO

fear that public discourse on the cost of Jewish learning is transforming financial frustration into a newly reduced opinion of Jewish schooling itself. The messaging is that Jewish education is inexcusably expensive and exclusive. I hear conversations that misunderstand how day schools are funded, misconstrue enrolment attrition and do not reflect Jewish ideals. It is inevitable that disdain for Jewish schooling becomes disdain for Judaism and the Jewish community; we are the People of the Book and the connection is there.

Evidence is overwhelming that good Jewish education is valuable to the Jewish future. Learning and practising Jewish values in childhood lock in an attachment to Judaism. Even those who may wander off in young adulthood usually return, when they have children, to model Jewish values and traditions for their own families.

Regrettably, economics can distract from this fact.

Looking down a long road of high tuition fees, young parents feel weighed down. Students are prey to a range of disparaging remarks about school fees and about the schools that need them. This, in turn, feeds youthful sarcasm, self-disdain and guilt, either because the students attend Jewish school and sometimes hear they are “bankrupting the family,” or because their parents can’t afford it but “others can.” Whatever the source and intent of the negativity, and even though it is not everywhere, as a community this is not how we foster joyous, long-term connections to Jewish heritage.

When tuition was less pricey, community decision-makers assumed collective responsibility to make day school education financially accessible to all. Now that it is expensive, this ethic has shifted. How can such a major Judaic precept as educating the next generation be so abandoned in a community as wealthy and world-leading as ours? On the basis of Jewish values, community funds must be reallocated to accommodate needed tuition support before the perennial joke of Jewish victimhood – poor us – does significant damage to the future of Jewish Canada. On principle, the “more tuition support” campaign must win.

Community tuition support at present is merely a gloss on most schools’ expenses. Parents struggle with their personal budgets and each school carries the bulk of tuition support thanks to in-house philanthropy. Several schools questioned for this article cover about 75 per cent of their subsidy needs. There is no causal connection between school enrolment and community tuition support; enrolment is up again at some schools and down in others. There is, however, a connection in terms of investment in the children’s future.

The complaint that day school fees are unreasonable lays blame on the schools, most of whom are trying every possible manoeuvre to be trim and efficient. A second complaint is that the fees are “not worth it,” implying that growing up without immersive Jewish learning is the correct way to raise Jewish children. To dispel the latter concern, schools must employ top teachers, research educational advancements and polish the program that their communities desire. It is very hard to do this while staying ultra lean and covering 75 per cent of subsidies. This is the conundrum that the organized Jewish community should redress.

Either Jewish schools should cover tuition support but receive program investment funds from the local Jewish federation or the federation should carry tuition support and leave program enhancement to the schools. The largest number of Toronto day schools now carry both, and that is the misfortune. While some schools in Toronto – not all – are experiencing reduced enrolment, I believe the next generation is as much at risk from the financial onus on schools to carry bursary needs, likely at the expense of academic enrichment, as it is at risk from diminishing enrolment. We are throwing the babies out with the bath water.

The cost of private schooling is not the fault of Judaism and Jewish educators. In the evolution of the Jewish People, it’s a new hurdle to meet without the ethic of universal tuition support in place. Financial pressure on Jewish families with respect to day school fees is defined by where the tuition subsidy ceiling is set at the federation, not by schools and teachers. The lay of the land is that, among the many urgent missions of Jewish organizations, educating Jewish youth is a high priority, but it’s just not the highest. It is more Judaism-friendly to try and explain day school economics to our kids and young parents without damaging their affection for the heritage we seek to nurture.

I wish the needs of the Jewish tomorrow were seen to be as urgent as those of the Jewish today. It is a question of survival and leadership. If the Jewish federations added a few percentage points to the Jewish education allocation of the annual campaign, a domino effect could radically alter the Jewish community.

Extending tuition support to all families in need would fulfil many families’ Jewish aspirations and flip negativity to positivity with respect to communal engagement and appreciation. It would also reduce the revenue problem that challenges many day schools – with added subsidy support, schools become more fully financed to further enrich their programs (enrolment dollars offset the school’s payroll expense that is static, whether there are 20 or 15 students in the room). Most significantly, more Jewish children would enjoy a high-quality, immersive Jewish school experience to underpin their Jewishness for a lifetime.

Families do stretch their dollars. Our community must stretch to reach them. It’s a matter of Jewish ethic, not finance. 

Pamela Medjuck Stein sits on the board of directors of The Canadian Jewish News.