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A Unified Theory of Jewish Day School Sustainability?

I am sitting at JFK International Airport typing on my iPad, charging my iPhone, and missing my iFamily. But airports are sometimes ideal places for forced reflection, and these hours waiting for my flight home have provided me some much-needed time to reflect on the relationship between the recently held edJEWcon conference and a meeting I was privileged to attend this morning at the AVI CHAI Foundation.

edJEWcon, which was sponsored by AVI CHAI and the Schechter Day School Network, was an attempt to bring 21 Jewish day schools and 14 partner agencies together for an “Institute on Teaching & Learning.” If you look through all the sessions offered at edJEWcon, you will not find one that deals with “financial sustainability.”

So why would the good folks at PEJE ask me to blog about how edJEWcon impacts financial sustainability?

I believe it is because the field has been keenly interested in seeing how educational technology might positively impact the budgets of Jewish day schools, and not just the quality of instruction. If online, virtual, or blended learning can reduce the cost of Jewish day school education while increasing (or at least maintaining) the quality of Jewish day school education, we might find a so-called Unified Theory of Jewish Day School Affordability.

There are two assumptions about this theory and the AVI CHAI-sponsored meeting I attended this morning, to my surprise, challenged both.

  1. It could be that outsourcing content creation, including course instruction and assessment, to online vendors—either General or Jewish Studies—will in fact lead schools to reduce their faculties. It is not clear that Jewish day schools, unless they are start-ups that see outsourcing content creation as part of their core mission, are prepared to really reduce their faculties. It could be that the content is not yet sufficiently adequate. Or that the content is not yet sufficiently adaptable. Or that a lack of sufficient benchmarks across all forms of Jewish day schools allows for the creation of affordable content.
  2. And it could be that, when push comes to shove, we really do believe that teachers make a huge difference and we aren’t ready yet to make painful decisions.

Judging from today’s conversation, the answer appears to be all of the above.

If the rush to embrace 21st century learning and educational technology does not lead to cost-cutting for Jewish day schools, it’s hard to imagine it contributing meaningfully to a conversation about financial sustainability. In fact, if not managed appropriately, 21st century learning even runs the risk of making schools less financially sustainable because of increased technology costs.

My “a-ha” moment came in conversation with Rebecca Coen, founding head of a new high-tech Orthodox Yeshiva in Los Angeles called Yeshiva High Tech. We were talking after the meeting, and it occurred to me that part of the dissonance I experience in these meetings comes from different markets, given that non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jewish day schools are all scrambling to maintain and add to their student populations.

From Coen’s perspective, her population cannot afford the tuition of Jewish day school, period. They are choosing public school over Orthodox Jewish day school. Her only option is to provide the best possible education for the lowest possible price (that is my interpretation not her words) and educational technology may, indeed, allow her to do this.

For me, however, even though there are plenty of families who cannot afford our tuition and are choosing public school, there are also plenty of families who can afford our tuition (or more), but are choosing to spend it on elite secular independent schools. Lowering my tuition is not going to attract them. Increasing the quality of my school hopefully will. Investing in 21st century learning and educational technology may, indeed, allow me to do this.

These are just the experiences of two schools. I want to know more. Have birth rates changed this conversation? Do Orthodox families have more children to the degree that Jewish day school is simply not affordable regardless of the means of the family? What is the percentage of non-Orthodox families who have the means, but choose to spend it elsewhere?

Twenty-first century learning may indeed provide important paths toward the financial sustainability of Jewish day school, but it might take more than one form depending on the model or movement. These are exciting times, as schools, agencies, and foundations are ready to dream dreams. The crisis of day school affordability is very real. The promise of 21st century learning and educational technology is equally real. I look forward to more conversations, more experiments, more research, and more sharing. Whether there is one answer or many, it will take us all to discover them.

Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, in Jacksonville, Florida.

2 thoughts on “A Unified Theory of Jewish Day School Sustainability?

  1. Eric Amar

    Having been intimately involved in the Independent School Financial Affordability issue for over 17 years now, I often wonder if we are trying to invent the car by trying to fix the horse when it come to getting creative about how to fund our Jewish Schools. It seems to me that so many of our discussions and projects surrounding independent school affordability, are predicated on trying to find a sustainable manner to fund a long-standing pre-existing model that may no longer hold the relevance that it once did. Are we looking at the issue correctly?
    My questions come from the following thoughts:
    It seems to me that people choose to allocate their financial resources in manners that reflect their individual and collective value systems. This comment is particularly relevant when it comes to understanding why middle income families choose to spend their financial resources on larger homes, second cars, vacations and more elaborate lifestyle choices rather than sacrifice all of these in order to afford the high and increasing price of Jewish Education.
    Better yet, why do so many of our wealthy families choose non-Jewish Independent schools with even higher price tags?
    What do these say about the sacrifices that we are willing (or not willing) to make to uphold and maintain our Jewish Identity?
    Those who are marginally able to pay, choose instead to allocate their financial resources to other lifestyle choices and those who can easily afford choose to attend higher priced non-Jewish alternatives. Although originating in different financial perspectives, both of these results send the same message to me……My Commitment to Jewish Education must fit into this newer value system that prioritizes lifestyles choices and excellence in the non-Jewish areas of curriculum and programming.
    Perhaps then, the problem lies in the existing disconnect between the current state of our Jewish Identity + the value systems that we have adopted in North American societies AND the value proposition that many of our day schools present.
    Many of our day schools are structured in much the same way. A core secular curriculum composed of mathematical and language arts programs AND a Jewish or Religious Add-on that supposedly reflects the Jewish Value system of the Community. Those who have additional funding may then add on another third level made up of other extras such as athletics, arts, music or technology. So the funding order goes something like this;
    1) Core Secular Subjects
    2) Jewish Programming
    3) Extras (if available)
    The problem is that many of our institutions barely generate the required enrolment based funding to exceed the first category and most do not generate enough to enrolment based funding to cover the third category. This problem is allegedly caused by the elevated price tag of Jewish Education Tuition which in turn creates a reduced enrolment level and thus structural deficits.
    But wait a minute…… the middle class is spending its scarce and limited resources on alternative lifestyle choices and the wealthy are paying even more to attend non-Jewish alternatives. So “price” doesn’t seem to be the real problem. It sounds to me like “Value” is probably a more accurate description of the problem. It seems to me that the non-Jewish areas of curriculum and programming carry a higher premium that do the traditional Jewish Programming requirements that we have been repeating for so many years.
    What would happen if we were able to create a model that resembles those high priced non-Jewish alternatives in the areas of technology, athletics and core Secular programming AND somehow integrate the “Jewish” aspect of the institution in more meaningful and far lighter methods. We would have a school for Jewish children that holds core Jewish values but does not carry the large and costly infrastructure associated with the Jewish Curriculum. Would we then be able to attract and retain the fleeting middle class with Jewish-lite values and the wealthy with non-Jewish focused preferences? Would this lower tuition more secular focused Jewish environment school generate the increased and sustained enrolment that we all strive for? Would it address the gap that exists between our desire to maintain our Jewish values and in a lower cost method and our desire to offer our children the best possible athletic, arts and technology training that integration into the secular world requires?
    Eric Amar – Independent School Consultant

  2. Charles

    I love the idea at the heart of Eric’s comment: that technology and other 21st century innovations represent paradigm-shifting opportunities for Jewish day schools. I’m not ready, though, to settle for “Jewish-lite values” as the acceptable compromise.
    The educational innovations presently available can not only reduce costs, or add value to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses, but can also increase fundraising, improve brand awareness, excite parents and other stakeholders, or more effectively infuse Jewish values and ideals through an entire curriculum.
    Ultimately, a “Unified Theory of Jewish Day School Affordability” cannot just be about balancing the see-saw of lower budgets and improved education; there are several other factors that should be considered, and it is up to each community and each school to determine how best to weigh each one to create their own “Theory of Affordability.”


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