Monday, August 22, 2011

From a Different Perspective

While waiting on line in a store I was privy to a conversation that was going on among the three people in front of me. All three were Catholics and were discussing the closure of three long-existing schools, two here on Staten Island and one in Brooklyn. Two were all girls high schools and one was an all boys high school.

Coming on the heels of news that at least two yeshivot were not going to be opening their doors in September (reported by Orthonomics and others), is there any relationship that can be seen between what I overheard in the market and what is happening with the yeshivas? Yes, there is a relationship.

First, it should be noted that Catholic schools fall into districts: all schools within a particular diocese are under the supervision of that diocese. We Jews do not have this type of districting, where all schools in a particular geographic area are under one supervisory/administration board. Second, the diocese sets general policy for all schools within its boundaries. Third, the diocese can grant monies within its coffers to schools across its area. Fourth, like yeshivas, Catholic schools are not free and charge tuition. This tuition has been going up steadily over the years, and has risen steeply over the last few years. (Note: among the reasons given for this steep rise in tuition were teachers are getting paid higher salaries than in older times, there are more specialists in the system--psychological and counseling and special ed--there are more extra curricular activities, which have gone up in basic cost, and there is more technology necessary to put into place, such as multiple computers.)

In addition, schools in some areas charge far less than some schools in other areas of the diocese, generally following along the lines of whether a particular neighborhood falls into the mostly low earners group, middle earners group or high earners group. The diocese makes up any financial shortfall in areas where the parents cannot pay the full load of tuition.

Now to the comparison of the Catholic/Jewish schools. Both types of school systems have schools known to be stellar as regards academics (secular academics meant here)--think Flatbush Yeshiva, the Ramaz School and a few of the Central/North Jersey schools. Both of these types of schools are pricey and getting pricier. These schools are looking for the best and the brightest, and if those targeted students can't afford the steep tuition, the diocese foots the bill for their reduced or missing tuition. For the yeshiva schools of this type, the schools fund raise to make up any missing monies and/or they raise tuition cost for the parents who can pay it to cover the shortfall.

Like the Catholic schools, yeshivas also fall into geographic or community areas which can be described as poor, middle class or wealthy. Unlike the Catholic schools, yeshivas don't have a diocese to pick up the financial slack if parents in a particular school area cannot pay sufficient tuition to cover the costs of the school.

And yet, even with the diocese available to pick up the financial pieces, 3 schools are closing. Why? One answer given by those standing in line was "They don't print money in the basement you know." Another point that was brought up was that the Catholic community has many types of services available to its members, from feeding the poor to caring for the elderly, and it has reached a point where expenses outstrip readily available cash to pay for those expenses.

And then came the kicker. One woman, who had sent all of her kids to Catholic school and has her grandchildren in those Catholic schools, said that it looked like it was time to rethink the whole idea of separate schooling. And she said the magic words--"After all, these schools are really private schools and who says we can really afford to push private school for everyone when we already pay for the public schools with our tax dollars? It's a different world today and what worked yesterday doesn't look like it's going to work tomorrow."

Yes, there are many points of comparison between the Catholic school system and the yeshiva system. Yes, they are both private education systems whose expenses are outrunning the funds available to pay for those expenses. They do have many similarities. There are also differences. Our yeshiva system is not a system with a central authority over all schools and the ability to shift funds as needed from one school to another. And yes, even with that type of financial ability, it's not possible to keep all the schools open.

Maybe it's about time that we stop trying to fix a system that is clearly broken and can't sustain itself financially and start looking for a replacement system. Maybe we need to be brutally honest and admit "Ma sheh hoyah, hoyah." And perhaps the first step would be to admit that we can't print money in the basement, and there simply is not enough money in Klal to keep the educational system as presently structured afloat, never mind attempt to provide other needed services as well. There is only X amount of money in Klal, and you can't spend X+3 gazillion dollars. That's reality, and we need to admit that.


Abba's Rantings said...

as a matter of policy, what has been the response of the church to school closures? what is their solution? where do they direct the kids in schools slated for closure?

(also note that the catholic school system of the sort you are referring to has a very different mission than our jewish day schools.)

JS said...

Are you suggesting we need to start looking at public schools plus Hebrew school?

If not, what are you proposing?

Mr Rocks said...

Let's skip over the yeshiva/kedusha angle for now - but the fact of the matter is all these private schools are mandated as to their secular curriculum from the state they are in any case. This alone should entitle them to tax $$. The view that the tax $$ are tied to the public schools and those who work in them is flawed. The dollars should be tied to the curriculum and those institutions that implement it.

My town will reimburse me the cost of getting my kid to a parochial school but not fund the reading, writing, arithmetic portion of the curriculum. I believe that is the problem.

tesyaa said...

Mr. Rocks, if the government pays the cost of secular education in yeshiva, you can be sure there will be changes required in yeshivas. Teachers of secular studies will have to be certified. There will be 180 days of school required. There will be a minimum number of hours of secular study.

Will yeshivas let go non-certified secular studies teachers with years of service? Will they hire certified teachers, at additional cost? Will yeshivas teach evolution?

Fixed costs (building, etc) plus the costs of religious studies will remain, and overall costs of secular studies will increase, although some of those costs will be borne by the state. (And with secular teachers earning $30,000 and rebbes earning $75,000, how much impact will there be?)

ProfK said...

Children within one schooling area where a school closes are entitled to admission to any other school in that schooling area as a first choice, except for those that are the educational superstars and where tests are required to be passed for admission. The schools that receive these new students don't have any say in the matter and can't pick and choose who they want to admit. Contrast that with the closing of the Bat Torah school in Jersey. Parents from that school, quite a few of them, were and still are having trouble placing their children in anything even vaguely resembling a local school. Many of these students are going to be traveling huge distances to and from school because the only school that would agree to take them is dozens and dozens of miles away. The Catholic schools really do answer to "a higher authority" and our yeshivas are all independent and do as they damn well please.

Begin with this idea. We in Klal have gone building and property mad. Why should there be dozens of little and even mid-sized or large schools all in one geographic area, all with separate buildings and duplicated facilities? The public schools have long had the idea of schools within schools, with multiple schools all in the same building. It's time that we in Klal looked at that idea as well. One large building housing multiple smaller schools that share the same facilities and same maintenance staff and lunchroom staff and library staff and specialist staff and technology classrooms and science classrooms. And yes, in exchange for all the advantages, all the schools would have to agree to the same school calendar and would have to adjust their kodesh/chol schedule so that specialist staff and specialized classrooms could be properly utilized throughout the day.

Mr. Rocks,
At least in NY, yeshivas already get state financial aid and reimbursement for various of the secular elements of the program in addition to school busses. Under NYSTL they get free textbooks for their students and certain computer programs as well. They get federal and state aid for their breakfast and lunch programs. They are reimbursed for taking and reporting school attendance of their pupils. There are other items as well. No, they don't get full reimbursement for the secular studies expenses, but then neither do any other private schools in the state, even if they have no religious component. The state believes that private school is a choice--it doesn't matter that we believe it is an obligation.

tesyaa said...

it doesn't matter that we believe it is an obligation.

An obligation based on the Mishneh Brurah? The Shulchan Aruch? What's the source of the obligation?

Is it as much of an obligation as caring for elders (as you discussed in an earlier post)?

Is it an obligation like Shabbos? Like kashrus?

The government has religious protections so that people can't be forced to abandon their religious obligations. I'm sure if you explain to the government that yeshiva education is an obligation, they'll pay for yeshiva tuition from now on. ;)

JS said...


Maybe you could do that for the myriad of small schools, but the larger schools already utilize the space they have. Further, the smaller schools would never do this unless financial circumstances demanded it. After all, why do people start small school when there are 10 more schools in the same area? To get their name on the letterhead, side of the building, etc. They don't want to share the kavod and the limelight with others. Sharing a building would be impossible for these types of people - they opened their own school because they don't want to "play nice with others." You'll likely get objections from the schools about nonsense like hashkafa, dress codes, calendar scheduling issues, etc.

Besides, numerous authorities have said (most recently Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz of JEC) that 75-80% of a school's budget is compensation (salary and benefits). The building costs are inconsequential apparently (or at least not going to result in much savings).

If you want to make yeshiva affordable you have to drastically cut staff. Everything else is window dressing.

So, I don't think what you're proposing will make any difference at all (again, it will never get off the ground anyways even for the small schools and the larger schools already utilize their space well).

ProfK said...

You're correct that many of those who have their own schools, many of them small, may well be seeking the kovod or are unable or unwilling to compromise in any way. So? Does that mean that those paying the expenses for these schools should bow down and get kicked?

Rabbi Teitz's figure is only sort of accurate. So only 25% goes to other than staff compensation. And if you could cut 10-20% of the total out because there would not be duplication isn't that a savings to parents? And let's look at that 75% compensation figure with a closer eye. First, when schools have multiple buildings of their own, personnel costs go up because each building gets at minimum an administrator and an office and a secretary. And then there is the tendency seen in many, many yeshivas to be overly top heavy with administrative personnel and assistant everythings to begin with. That 75-80% figure for personnel is not for the barebones needed or even for a slightly beefed up staff. In fact it's for a stretched and bloated staff. So no, I don't take that 75-80% figure as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

If some of those bigger schools would just add a few floors to their one existing building instead of building yet another separate building there could be real savings, both on the building end and on the personnel end.

tesyaa said...

JS & ProfK, you're both overlooking the fact that small schools don't intend to stay that way - they intend to grow. Both the leadership and the parent body of those schools would not want to admit that their product is only appealing to a limited number of families.

If a school admits that it is going to stay small and will be an add-on to a large, popular school, it risks losing its identity altogether, and most likely going under sooner rather than later. Yet the people associated with those schools are usually fervently dedicated to their particular approach or hashkafa. What makes you think small schools would effectively want to commit suicide by subsuming themselves within a large school?

It's not a matter of kavod; it's a matter of belief and dedication that many of these schools exist. They'd have to admit that their mission is not appealing enough to engender growth. It's a tough pill to swallow.

ProfK said...

No one says that the small schools would have to disappear altogether, merely that they would physically relocate to a larger building together and be able to share resources with the other distinct schools in the same building. All schools sharing the same building, for instance, would share one lunchroom and divide the cost for the personnel needed for that lunchroom. Ditto with computer labs and science labs and libraries and nurse's offices and gym and art and music and assembly facilities. Those smaller schools could quite easily function independently but within the same physical setting as the larger schools.

Universities funtion in this manner quite efficiently. A number of colleges and specialized graduate schools all share the same basic facilities, with their names intact, reducing expenses and providing for more efficient use of facilities and staff.

tesyaa said...

Whatever. It's all rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic anyway. The community, in a noncoercive, nonsocialistic setting, cannot afford universal yeshiva education for the large number of children being born. Instead of admitting it, let's posit that combining the few small schools with the big schools is going to solve the problem. Shkoyach.

JS said...

I agree with tesyaa about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I just don't see a single solution that allows for universal yeshiva private school in anything close to its current form.

You can trim costs till the cows come home, it's still private school with a dual curriculum and it's still really expensive. So, you trim and trim and consolidate and consolidate and fire all extraneous administrators, etc. and you manage to cut tuition by 1/3. Wonderful. Now it's $10k per child K-8 instead of $15k. Now it's $18k 9-12 instead of $25k. Yes, these are MO numbers, but it's pretty safe to assume that the scale of MO income to MO tuition is roughly the same as RW income to RW tuition. Regardless, it's semantics. No one can afford it. Those that are paying are foregoing seriously important items like savings, college funds, retirement funds, etc.

If you have top earners in this generation struggling to pay tuition during K-8 and unable to meaningfully save, how can the next generation possibly do it?

The only solution coming out of the leadership is to completely gut the secular education the kids receive and replace it with some variation of online learning.

I have no idea if this will make universal yeshiva sustainably affordable, but I have a few guesses as to what it will do the character of the communities that implement this.

tesyaa said...

JS, cutting tuition by 1/3 would be a tremendous achievement. Look at the Chump commenters, though, who are excited by the possibility of a lower cost option and are now claiming that they are going to have an additional child or children. In terms of overall affordability, we're right back where we started if we see a reduction in per-child tuition as an opportunity to have more children.

Miami Al said...

Keep in mind, while their ARE diocese schools that are top notch and subsidized (especially in the larger, established archdioceses in the northeastern United States), there are also independent Catholic Schools, which down here, include most of the "elite" schools.

The upper middle class Catholics that want a Catholic Prep school pay for it. Is there financial aid/scholarships at these schools, absolutely. Is it anything like the Yeshiva model? No, it looks more like a Independent school than a Catholic diocese school. And these schools are often elite in various ways and attract non-Catholic students as well, which brings money in.

Your Modern Orthodox Day Schools look more like the Independent Catholic schools in both form AND function than the diocese schools, and the cost structure is similar.