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Exploring Jewish Day Schools in Massachusetts

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“Perfect storm” of increasing need for financial aid and decreasing philanthropic support has resulted in enrollment drop

BOSTON – A new Pioneer Institute study of Jewish day schools in Massachusetts calls for the creation of an education tax credit program to ensure that children have the widest possible access to the schools their parents choose for them.

In “And You Shall Teach Them Diligently”: The History and Status of Jewish Day Schools in Massachusetts, author Jason Bedrick notes that a “perfect storm” of increasing need for financial aid and declining philanthropic support has caused an enrollment decline in the commonwealth’s 19 Jewish day schools, which educate about 3,000 students.

“And You Shall Teach Them Diligently”: The History and Status of Jewish Day Schools in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Jewish day school enrollment was down almost 4 percent between the 2008-09 and 2011-12 academic years. Over the longer term, enrollment is down 3.1 percent since the 2001-02 school year. The 3.1 percent drop is nearly 50 percent higher than the decrease in public school enrollment over the same period.

“While voucher programs would run afoul of the state constitutional prohibition on public money flowing to religious schools, that is not the case for tax credits,” said Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios. “There is a clear need, especially for low-income families; and tax credits have been targeted in New Hampshire and Rhode Island to address those specific needs.”

Under the programs, education tax credits are granted to corporations or individuals who contribute to state-approved, non-profit scholarship organizations. The organizations then grant scholarships to qualifying families.

Studies indicate that reductions in revenue from the tax credits are generally less than the corresponding reductions in education spending as a result of students taking advantage of the programs. More than 100,000 students in 10 states – including Rhode Island and New Hampshire – are currently educated under tax credit programs.

Bedrick notes that even scholarships that aren’t equal to the full cost of tuition can reduce the financial strain on families. When a Jewish day school in Cleveland cut tuition from about $10,000 to $5,500, the school saw a 20 percent increase in enrollment over three years.

In a 2007 study of Jewish day school parents conducted by Combined Jewish Philanthropies, 71 percent said the schools’ costs forced their families to make difficult quality-of-life sacrifices. Because of the cost, 23 percent didn’t expect that their kids would be able to remain in a Jewish day school through graduation.

The schools rely mainly on tuition and foundation support for their revenue. Only a few have endowments or investment income.

Studies find a strong correlation between Jewish day school education and commitment to Jewish life. The schools also create more committed citizens by instilling civic and communal values that translate into increased civic engagement.

Most area Jewish day schools are operating at between 70 and 99 percent of capacity. Their per-pupil expenditures are similar to those in their communities’ public schools.

In recent years, Pioneer has released a number of research publications on removing the barriers to expanded school choice: “Be Not Afraid”: A History of Catholic Schooling in Massachusetts (March 2011); Education Tax Credits: A Review of the Rhode Island Program and Assessment of Possibilities in Massachusetts (October 2010); The Know-Nothing Amendments: Barriers to School Choice in Massachusetts (April 2009); and School Choice Without Vouchers: Expanding Education Options through Tax Credits (October 2007).

Jason Bedrick is a visiting policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. He previously served as a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

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Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.