The perfect storm facing Jewish Day Schools

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Think of school choice in Massachusetts and the first thoughts that come to mind are charter schools in the public realm, possibly the Bay State’s many high-end and mainly historic independent schools, or Catholic schools in urban and suburban areas across the Commonwealth.

The fact is that there is a lot of choice in Massachusetts. Consider the 3,300 kids in METCO interdistrict programs in Boston and, to a lesser extent, in Springfield; kids in other interdistrict choice programs around the state; and vocational-technical schools around the state.

If Catholic schools have seen declining enrollments, the waiting lists for charter public schools and METCO programs are in the tens of thousands. With the impressive work of the state’s regional voc-tech schools, they now have thousands of kids on their waiting lists as well.

Of course, for independent schools affordability is a huge barrier to entry. That is true not only of the $25,000-plus annual tuition locations, which often focus part of their recruitment strategies on providing scholarship opportunities; it is also true for Catholic schools and Jewish Day Schools (JDS).

With 3,000 students enrolled in Massachusetts’ 19 Jewish day schools (which represent Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and pluralist cultures), we are talking about a set of schools that serve about as many kids as are enrolled in METCO. Except for seven historic schools (Yeshiva Academy in Worcester, the Lubavitcher Yeshiva and the Heritage Academies in Longmeadow, New England Hebrew Academy and the Maimonides in Brookline, the Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, and Cohen Hillel Academy in Marblehead), the JDS are of relatively recent vintage having been established since the 1970s.

A recent study entitled “And You Shall Teach Them Diligently”: The History and Status of Jewish Day Schools in Massachusetts provides important historical and pedagogical analysis of JDS. (The title is drawn from an exhortation in Deuteronomy 6:7.) The author of the paper, Jason Bedrick, then focuses on enrollment declines in the day schools, which have mirrored the decreases seen in the public system over the past decade, though there has been some growth in Orthodox “Chabad-affiliated K-8 schools and high schools of all affiliations.” The result is that

Declining enrollment in recent years has left Massachusetts’ Jewish day schools with significant excess capacity. Capacity utilization ranges from below 49 percent to 100 percent, with only one school at either extreme and most schools operating at between 70 percent and 99 percent. More than half of the schools are operating at less than 90 percent capacity while only one-fifth are operating at less than 70 percent capacity.

What is leading to the declines in JDS is different from the demographic patterns we see in the overall public system. Part of it is cost, with “the range of total per student costs at the Jewish day schools [ed. note: including infrastructure costs] is similar to the range of current per pupil expenditures at nearby public schools [ed. note: excluding infrastructure costs].”

Citing Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, Bedrick notes that

the day schools are currently facing a “perfect storm” of a growing number of families requiring financial aid combined with a shrinking philanthropic base of support. This is making it difficult for Jewish day schools to fulfill their longstanding tradition of not turning away students due to lack of ability to

Marc Baker of Gann Academy says that the need for financial aid since 2008 is “through the roof.” Gann is “closer to Catholic schools than other independent schools” in that the socio-economic status of most students is “right in the middle, on the brink of not being able to afford it.” This is true of many Jewish day schools in Massachusetts, particularly, though not exclusively, the Orthodox schools. “We don’t have a wealthy clientele here,” explains Esther Ciment, principal at New England Hebrew Academy, “There are multiple families with five or six kids in the school. It’s absolutely impossible for them to pay full tuition or even half tuition, so we give out a lot of scholarships. Filling that void is a struggle all the time.”

The latest demographic survey of the Jewish community in the Greater Boston area found that 27 percent of families earn less than $50,000 annually with 15 percent earning less than $35,000.

How should we address the “perfect storm” of increasing need for financial aid and decreasing philanthropic support? Acknowledging the two state constitutional barriers to providing public tax dollars for private school use, which sadly stem from the Know-Nothing bigotry of the 1850s and 1860s, Bedrick suggests an education tax credit program to ensure that children have the widest possible access to the schools their parents choose for them. 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.

Bedrick suggests looking at these programs in neighboring states to see how we might structure such a program here, suggesting that the education tax credits could be granted to philanthropies or philanthropists contributing to state-approved, non-profit scholarship organizations. The organizations would 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.

You can see a paper on Rhode Island’s tax credit strategy here. See Bedrick describe the study below.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.