Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Changing the Billing System

Here in New York real estate taxes are used to fund the public school system. Not exactly a secret that some residential areas produce more in revenue from such taxes than other areas do. Some districts are across the board wealthier than other districts. Some areas are "rich" enclaves, some are mixed, with both higher end and mid or lower end housing in the same district, and some districts are all lower end housing. And it's not a secret either that some schools in some districts are better funded than schools in other districts, are in "nicer" buildings, offer more by way of enrichment activities or extra-curricular activities. Now obviously the students in districts offering more all benefit, whether or not their parents are paying more or less in taxes. I have yet to hear a public outcry that everyone in a particular school district should be paying exactly the same amount in real estate taxes, regardless of type/size of house and property. For the public school systems it's a fact of life that not every student in a particular district may have parents who are kicking in the same amount of money towards maintaining that district and its schools.

And then there is the yeshiva system. For purposes of this posting I will assume the following: the frum community does not believe that yeshiva education is optional for frum kids. The frum community does not consider yeshivas as private schools in the sense that private schools are personal choices, optional choices made by parents on a case by case basis for their children. The frum community thinks of the yeshiva system as parallel to the public school system. All children in the US are required to get an education by law, ergo you have the public school system. Much of frum thought says the same thing; all frum kids are required to get a dual education, ergo the yeshiva/day school system.

So, we have the yeshiva/day school system paralleling the public school system. Only the parallel is not exact. In a public school system those having more money and living in more expensive housing are kicking in more towards the expenses of the school system than those who have less money and/or less expensive housing. No one tells those parents paying the least in real estate taxes that they have to pay the same as those who have larger houses just because the kids go to the same schools. And here is another difference between the two systems: all housing in a district pays real estate taxes that are used for education, regardless of whether or not the homeowner has children in the system.

And then there is yeshiva tuition. Unlike real estate taxes, yeshiva tuition is the same for all children attending the school. Some yeshiva/day school families have larger financial "homes" and some have smaller ones; yet, they both are charged the same "real estate" taxes. Those who cannot pay the higher taxes do have an option: apply for tuition assistance or scholarships and/or go into debt to pay the charges. Furthermore, there is an attitude by many towards those families that need the tuition assistance that they are somehow trying to con the system, that they should be grateful that the wealthier families are willing to take up the burden that these tuition assistance families place on a school. The result in many cases is a lot of loshon horah and kinoh. (And yes, there is an attitude by many that if you cannot afford the "real estate taxes" in a community, don't move in there.)

So what is one answer? Like real estate taxes levied by the government, tuition costs should NOT be identical right from the get go. If a person's financial "house" is only $100K or $150K, why is that person being charged the same amount of "tax" as someone whose financial "house" is $300K or $500K? In other words, schools should not be talking about tuition but about tuitions. Make X and your tuition is X. Make Y and your tuition is Y. Make Z and your tuition is Z.

Then there is this. Tuition bills are screwy, to say the least. Tuition is broken down into multiple parts and includes some items that ought not to be there. Our shul has a yearly dinner. Attendance and the subsequent donation are optional. Schools also have yearly dinners, but the cost is included under tuition and all parents have to pay it, whether or not they go to the dinner. Why? It's a fundraising affair, not an educational program for the children in the school. If you're going to raise funds, go after the people who have the money to donate. Making the dinner part of tuition is forced tzedaka. The same for mandatory building funds being included under tuition. Again, this is fundraising and should target those with the funds to donate, not be a mandatory part of tuition.

A lot of what appears or is hidden within a yeshiva tuition bill is not a direct expense of educating the children in the school. Do you really think that a whole bunch of third graders are rioting in the halls because they want a mega building with marble floors? Do you really think that under educational benefits that the school should be giving to our students the lease on the Principal's car should be considered? Those things are truly extras, and extras should be funded through fundraising--if you get the donations to cover the wanted expenditure then fine. If not, you don't spend the money and assume that you can recoup it via tuition. And when it comes to these types of expenditures the rule should be simple: if you have the money and/or pledges that will allow you to spend on X then you can buy X. If you don't have the money then you have to wait until you do to spend on X. The first expenses that have to be considered should be only those for direct education of the students. Anything after that is gravy and should fall outside the category of tuition.

So yes, one thing that needs fixing and needs fixing now is how we "tax" and bill the parents in the yeshiva system. Concurrent with that is that we need to fix how funds are allocated in the yeshiva budget. First, educate the kids. After that MAYBE there might be money for other things.


Dave said...

The Yeshivas want to be considered communal organizations when it suits them, and private businesses, when it suits them. They certainly aren't willing to shut some Yeshivas down in consolidation to better use communal funds.

If there were an Orthodox equivalent to a Catholic Diocese, you might have a shot at making this work. There isn't.

Eli said...

Your idea is a good one and makes sense. But how do you get the yeshivas to change? I think Dave is right that the yeshivas consider themselves sometimes as community organizations and sometimes as private businesses when it suits them. It's very few people in a community that really make the decisions like the one about tuition. Who gives them that power to make the decisions and how can we change that?

Anonymous said...

I agree with the prior comments. The analogies to public school systems fall flat. Public schools are controled by elected school boards. All of the board meetings are open to the public (these days most are aired on local cable tv) and members of the public are usually given an opportunity to speak at board meetings. Most of the board's records are public records, with exceptions for confidential student and personnel information. All salaries of every school district employee are public and hiring generally is subject to civil service laws and who you know. School boards can't just decide to build a new building, there is a separate process for large capital expenditures. I could go on and on.

Leahle said...

Anonymous, unless I'm reading wrong it wasn't the public schools per se that were being compared to the yeshivas. It was that the tax system that pays for the schools charges people in a community different amounts based on what a house is valued at. Since it's not houses but income that is looked at by the yeshivas, there should be different amounts charged depending on how much money is coming in.

Also, at least in the schools in my area, the yeshiva boards are also elected. If they are elected then it should be possible to 'unelect' them if they don't provide what those electing them want or need. What is true that you mention about the public schools is that the working of the elected yeshiva boards is all in secret and nothing is open for view. That certainly needs to change.

Ruth said...

The idea of tiered pricing could work but you left out step one that has to be put into place before you can get to the tiered pricing. First you have to change existing school structure so that good ideas, ones that parents want, that could help them out, that could be good for the families of a school, can be put into use.

School boards or whoever really owns or is in charge of decision making for a yeshiva are real status quo types, don't rock the boat types. There would have to be a real incentive for them to change the way they are doing things, and something's being a good idea isn't going to be that incentive. Hate to say it but the incentive would have to be a negative one not a positive one--not here's what good could come to you if we make the changes we want but here's what bad things could come to you if you don't make the changes we want.

Maybe what we need to think of before all the changes that could be useful IN the schools is how to effect a change in the structure OF the schools.

A Fan said...

I was hoping you'd add the part about everyone paying school taxes regardless of whether or not they have kids in the system to the analogy. We need to get everyone contributing- no kids and grown kids too (and NOT in the form of grandparents covering tuition). If we're going to make the parallel to real estate taxes, this is an important part of the picture.

Dave said...

If you want to make the analogy work:

1. Payment is non-optional, and does not consider the number of children in the school system.

2. There is no per-child schooling cost at all.

So, how do you make that work when you cannot make payment mandatory? Unless, of course, you are willing to create a communal association of all the Shuls, Schools, and Mikvot, and say "here is the annual price to be a member of the community, if you don't pay, you are not welcome in any of them, ever".

I not only think you could not get that association formed, I don't think you could ever get it to take that step.

JS said...

I found this post completely confusing. I thought you were going to explain how funding the schools the way public schools are funded would save the system, instead you broke the analogy and then went off on a tangent.

Public schools: Funded by everyone, taxes collected in proportion to house/land.

Yehsiva: Funded only by those in school, ostensibly bill is the same.

Problem is, the bill isn't the same. There already is a proportional type of system called "scholarship." It's not based on house/land but on stated income. If you make above X, you pay the full amount. If you make less, it's a sliding scale based on factors no one seems to understand. Further, while not everyone pays into the system, there are many wealthy donors who do even if they don't have kids in the school.

It seems the real difference between the two systems, is that the government doesn't really give tax breaks and people are put on notice that if you choose to live int his city, you are required to pay X. If a person can afford the mortgage for $500k house but cannot afford a certain town's astronomical taxes, that person will buy the house elsewhere. With the yeshivas, this is never a concern. Even if you can't afford the taxes, the yeshiva will find someone else in town to pay it for you. In the real world, people don't buy houses for which they can't afford the taxes. In the yeshiva world, there is nothing comparable. If anything, having "high tax" and "low tax" districts would help the yeshiva system. For example, JFS is $6.5k + transportation, Bergen County yeshivas are $14k (and some pay transportation as well). If yeshivas were like public schools, Staten Island would be flooded with young, frum couples. Instead, they all move to Teaneck/Bergenfield. Cost is simply not an object.

As for the miscellaneous fees, I agree. By the way, most schools barely raise much money from their dinners. They collect only around $200k or so. It's a drop in the annual budget. As for the building funds, what do you expect? People who don't care about costs (very wealthy, scholarship families) want big, beautiful, new campuses. Frisch's new campus cost over $50MM and has over a $40MM outstanding mortgage for which they are supposedly only paying interest, not principle. The management stinks.

Anonymous said...

Leahle: You are correct about the analogy. My point was, no taxation without representation.

Anonymous said...

I would also add that in the public school/taxation system in exchange for a "free" public education, parents don't get to pick their kids' schools other than by where they live. They can't say ooh this school doesn't have my exact hashkafa, its too RW or too LW or we can't have mixed classes for 7 year olds or I can't send my child to a school that teaches math instead of spelling in the morning.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to add that parents also don't get to say they don't want their children's bus ride to be 30 minutes or 40 minutes or that that they don't want their child to go to a different school than their neighbors go to. (Those of you following a certain tuition blog will know what I am referring to.)

tesyaa said...

Anon 11:30 - agreed and I would point out that if you want a different school and/or district, you have to pick up and move, which is a huge impediment.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:34. What blog are you referring to? Can you link?

efrex said...

A Fan: Absolutely correct. This, however, requires that the local yeshiva be considered a communal institution, and be supported by the community. This, in turn, requires a strong local communal cohesion, which is unfortunately not present in most MO communities, at least in my experience, where, for the most part, yeshivot/day schools are considered independent organizations, expecting to be supported solely by those using them. I assume that in some chassidic neighborhoods, this is not the case, and in theory, Yeshiva RSR Hirsch, as part of the K'hal Adath Jeshurun kehilla structure, has the same advantage. (Practically speaking, it doesn't, but that's a topic for another time & place).

Anonymous said...

I'm resentful as hell JS that you indiscriminately lump scholarship parents together with big earners when you say 'People who don't care about costs (very wealthy, scholarship families) want big, beautiful, new campuses'

I'm one of those scholarship parents not because I'm looking for a free ride but because my husband got sick last year, can only work sporadically and I can't pay the bills now. I don't give a damn about fancy buildings and if anyone cares about costs it's me. You try going to the grocery with $30 in your pocket and buying food to feed a family for a week. Stop lumping all scholarship parents together and making them the bad guys here.

And maybe if the yeshivas had charged us less in tuition when we did pay full price I would have been able to save some money so that now when I need it I would have had it.

Anonymous said...

has a very interesting scholarship post today. Worth reading.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:13. I'd be happy to if the Prof lets us know she doesn't mind links to other blogs here. I have to warn you, however, that if you go to that other site you could end up wasting many hours there, as I have done.

Anonymous said...

"That" blog is also talking now about birth control and scholarship. Really though-provoking stuff in my opinion.

JS said...


First of all, I am sorry to hear about your situation. I hope it improves quickly.

Although perhaps it wasn't apparent from that comment, I have commented numerous times elsewhere that I think people jumping on the scholarship parents are just wrong and that the vast majority of scholarship recipients don't want to be such and have a difficult time making ends meet. In short, being on scholarship isn't winning the lottery. I think the $200k chumps, for all their whining about paying full tuition, have a far better situation that practically any scholarship recipient.

All that said, my point was only that the two groups are not price conscious when it comes to the costs of fancy new building. A wealthy person can swing the extra money. A few thousand extra a year doesn't mean anything. A scholarship recipient who is told you only have to pay X regardless of what the full tuition amount is, is also not price conscious, but, obviously, for different reasons. They get a better school for the same price.

That was my only point.

Aryeh said...

Anon 11:24--about that taxation without representation, most of us assume that having school parents on the board is getting that representation. Yeah, and that works about as well as our US congress does. You elect someone to the school board and then they turn around and ignore all the other parents concerns or buckle under to the other board members and forget how they got on the board to begin with.

Trudy said...

I think that Dave may have made the most important point in this discussion--Unless, of course, you are willing to create a communal association of all the Shuls, Schools, and Mikvot, and say "here is the annual price to be a member of the community, if you don't pay, you are not welcome in any of them, ever". I not only think you could not get that association formed, I don't think you could ever get it to take that step.

Just what is it that we mean when we say the word community. Is it just a physical/geographic location and nothing else? If that's the case then any services in that community can charge whatever they can get away with and you either pay or you don't get the services.

But if we mean by community a commune in which all the members are responsible for all the other members, where we all bear the cost for the services provided then that is something else. If we mean the commune idea then there needs to be a new form of organization in existence--the community council. Individual organizations in this way of being organized could not make unilateral decisions about finances that might affect everyone. Schools would not be able to take out $40 million mortgages if the commune as a whole vetoed that. That council would have to let anyone considering joining the commune that these are the minimum prices you will have to pay if you live here and if you can't pay them you can't live here.

Lion of Zion said...

no time to comment on interesting post and comments, but


JS is definately not a scholarship basher. to the contrary.

Anonymous said...

I'll accept the apology JS but there was no way to know from what you said here that you've said other things someplace else and that you weren't bashing scholarship parents. Maybe we could all learn something as we comment on blogs or talk to people. It's not what you meant to say to someone that that someone will hear, it's what you actually said that will be heard.

ProfK said...

Taking a five minute work break so I really don't have the time to respond to all the comments now, but that comment by Trudy struck a chord I want to mention now. In the towns in Europe before WWII, at least in the ones where I had family, there was such a community council, and it made the decisions that affected all the Jews living in that community regardless of shul or school affiliation. Everyone wasn't identical in those towns but the community council wasn't set up to be partisan but to take into consideration EVERYONE in the community. The Rosh Ha'Kahal was actually of more importance than any individual rabbi of a shul or head of a school because what he and his council decided and the actions it took affected everybody in town. It's not a new idea but an old one that bears reinstituting.

rejewvenator said...

What fell flat for me about the OP's analogy is that people pay taxes in proportion to their real estate. In the yeshiva system, the opposite holds true. Since a school won't make you sell your home to meet the tuition, we have a bunch of families that are house-rich, yet receive tuition scholarships. It's almost as though you tell the state "there's no way I can afford my real estate tax, my mortgage bill is too high!" and the state turns around and gives you a discount!

Lion of Zion said...


1) the situation you mention really doesn't describe most European jews in the 1930s
2) the medieval origins (and for the most part later perpetuation as well) of the unitary corporate kehilah you refer to was a factor of external requirement (from the non Jewish powers) rather than a internal desire for cohesiveness.
3) Jewish education (since that is the problem you are adressing) did not cost a fraction of what it costs today (and by the 20th c many Jews were attending public school anyway) an was not te crippling factor it is today. I suspect even the local unified kehilot would have been crushed economically had they tried to fund universal education for every kid on a model we today expect
4) which brings me to my final point. The European kehillah as originally established was *very* restrictive in terms of admitting new members. Ther are famous cases of big rabbonim fleeing from pogroms in the 17th c who were denied even temporary refuge by kahal and were forced onward. Even the children of members could often not look forward to membership and would have to move elsewhere (no easy task since other communities were as restrictive). naturally finances were a good reason to reject/accept someone (the mahal didn't want to accept someone for whom they would have to take of financially and they also didn't want to assume thatvpersons share of the Tex debt owed to non Jewish powers). Poor refugees or beggars were simply given some tzedakah and sent to the next town (and later across continent or the ocean)

So the community you envision whereby every person who wants to move in and join can do so regardless of what they bring to table really didn't exist.

were no guaranteed membership