Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Next Big Idea or a Bunch of Old Ideas Put Together?

Hat Tip: ProfK who brought my attention to something I ignored when it was originally published and asked what her readers think.

On a website "The Next Big Jewish Idea" we are treated to one heck of a big dream (perhaps a bigger dream than government vouchers): COMPLETELY FREE EDUCATION! Incidentally, as strongly as I believe that Jewish day school/yeshiva tuition is out of control, I don't want tuition-free private schooling either. Yes, I think that as a whole we are best served by paying something modest to reasonable that requires some level of sacrifice on the part of the parents. But, back to the subject of the "Big Jewish Idea."

The plan, known as ROILA (Return on Investment Los Angeles), is a plan to reduce and ultimately completely eliminate the cost of tuition for statement of LA Jewish school, K-12. No surprise, what is being proposed here is an endowment fund that will eventually spin off enough to cover the cost of tuition. Before I list the components and phases of the program, let me remind my readers of the cost of tuition at (Orthodox) "pro-Israel Zionistic schools", the only schools that might be included in a program someone is dreaming about:

Phase One, 3-5 Years
All parents with child in Jewish schools must join a synagogues and pay full membership. Then the synagogues would raise membership by 10-15% (synagogue memberships seem to vary between approximately $1000 and $3500, making a 10% raise between $100 and $350). Revenues for increased membership gets put into a super-fund. Mega-donors will match the funds.

The start-up funds raised will 1) fund the project and 2) reduce tuition.

Comments: This tax-on-membership has the possibility of creating new money for schools, but is likely to deprive synagogues of needed donations. If I were sitting on the board of a synagogue, I'm not certain I'd be supportive. I don't know of a shul that survives on dues alone, or even a shul for which dues pay for the majority of the operative budget, and taking money in the form of membership is likely to result in lesser discretionary donations. Raising the price of membership could drive away existing or new members. It is highly likely that the day school families will *not* be able to pay the higher priced membership.

Strings Attached

This is the only new idea I'm seeing proposed. Schools that receive funds "must accept certain fiscal oversights in the form of a Controller Czar, operate according to basic business principles, and have professional Board training. In return, the schools would have larger student bodies, subsidies, and money to improve teacher compensation and address infrastructure concerns."

Commentary: I've said numerous times in regards to community wide funds that there needs to be "strings attached." Here the proposal includes attaching some strings, but I don't see much of a call for cutting costs. In fact, there is a call to increase costs (i.e. improve teacher compensation) and staffing is, by far, the largest cost of private education. Perhaps the idea is that larger classes will offset the increased teacher compensation, but to increase class size you either need to 1) shut down schools or 2) attract new students. Regarding the former, I believe the "pro-Israel Zionistic schools" are large enough that no one school can simply be absorbed into another, which leaves attracting new students.

Community Service
Parents are asked to give, not money, but perform "meaningful community service" as well as "participate in educational classes given by volunteer parents."

Commentary: Both Hillel and Yavneh's tuition schedules (see links above) require parents to volunteer hours annually or pay additional tuition ($1,200 and $500, respectively). I'd love to know what "meaningful community service" the planners have in mind which is presumably above and beyond. It would be innovative to attempt and replace paid staff with volunteer staff. The call above is to increase teacher compensation.

As for participating in educational classes. . . . who has money for babysitting in order to attend classes? At least in the Sephardi House, the babysitting budget is non-existent.

Honoring Mega-Donors
Mega-Donors will have their names publicly honored and posted prominently.

Commentary: We know the names of existing mega-donors. Their names are on the wall!

Phase 2, Bequeaths

"All LA Jews (emphasis mine) would be asked to bequeath 5% of their assets in their will to the school and 5% to the shul of their choice. This 10 percent of their estates for ROILA would fund the Super-Fund and eliminate the burden on the Mega-donors. Community members would be asked to give their children $0.90 on the dollar, with $0.10 going back to the community as their final mitzvah on earth."

Commentary: There is no way you will ever get "all LA Jews" to be part of a single program, especially those who prefer to send their children to schools that are not included in the program. So, it would be silly to base a program on a dream that requires such a high level of participation. What endowment a more reasonable participation rate raise, say 10% participation raise, over the next 25 years?

Incentivized, Safeguards?

The planners call this plan a win-win and write "donors rarely view schools as a sound investment as many schools have not spent donor money as intended. Here donors not only have safeguards but become highly incentivized to donate locally to their own community . . . .this system could ultimately serve as a sustainable national model."

Commentary: Uh, the reason donor money isn't spent as intended is normally because there isn't enough money to cover the operating costs! Where is the plan to cover operating costs? Speaking of safeguards, many an endowment fund has been raided. I believe the point the planners are trying to make it that a school can't raid the endowment fund to cover this or that. That alone doesn't "safeguard" the fund. As for sustainability, the only thing I see here that is undeniably sustainable is death.

My Conclusion
This is unfortunately just another pipe-dream which combines mostly old ideas put together in new packaging with a great new acronym. We absolutely do need to reduce the "constant pressure on parents" that tuition brings, but "there is no such thing as a free lunch". You can't solve today's problems (and I'd classify $15,000 plus tuitions as a problem) by waiting for a generation to die. I personally do not believe there is a way to make private school education available and affordable for all. Given the recent public school news, I believe that public education is going to need to take a serious haircut to be "sustainable." I do believe we spend too much time dreaming BIG when we'd be better served by piloting small ideas.

If you read the rest of the article you can learn about the community service aspect including entire families. You can learn about housing opportunities and one-stop job boards, problem solving, respecting the environment, and caring for their elders (!). And you will learn that "once the structure is in place the possibilities to positively impact the community are only limited by our imaginations."

Here is my "next big Jewish idea": offer a Free Market Economics 101 class so we can start dreaming and start piloting some real programs that could offer real relief to some people and some schools. There is no such thing as utopia in olam ha-zeh. My new slogan, think small and doable.


JS said...

Glad to see you commenting on this.

I won't repeat the comments I made on ProfK's blog, but say a few different things:

1) I know LA isn't the "sticks" but it's pretty striking that it seems every Jewish community across the country has tuition for "pro-Israel Zionistic schools" set at the same level. It's really a national problem and not a local or regional one. It also begs the question of how every Jewish community can uniformly be so darn stupid in creating the exact same problem everywhere.

2) I'm becoming more and more convinced that there won't be any cure-all solution or that the schools or communities will propose any meaningful solution. Ideas are too entrenched, too many people make too much money off the current system, and too many people attach a sense of "kedusha" to the current model (even though day school is maybe 50 years old and ridiculously overpriced schools are maybe 10).

3) The best thing the community can do is to STOP throwing money at the problem. Every time there's economic pressure that could lead to meaningful solutions, someone pops up with another plan that infuses money into the situation. It seems the latest proposal in the Teaneck area is to give scholarships/grants to "middle income" families that currently don't qualify for scholarships (read people making over $200k are now "middle class"). We just keep pushing the can down the street.

4) The schools don't differentiate themselves on price, they do it on hearsay and rumors that one is "better" than the other or that "certain" people go to one yeshiva over another. This allows each school to charge as much as the others. There's no downward economic pressure at all. A real communal solution would involve forcing the schools to differentiate or throwing support behind a new school that does differentiate.

5) It seems the social pressure that existed and prevented parents from seeking out public school (or charters) is slowly crumbling. People should embrace this even though it may seem bad in the short term, in the long term it's likely to force the schools to compete on things that actually matter such as quality and cost.

6) In the end, the only real solution to the crisis is to do what's best for your family because it's going to take a LONG time before this sorts itself out on a communal level.

Orthonomics said...

JS-It isn't just Modern Orthodox Schools. In 2006 Toras Emes (Los Angeles) tuition was $12,000. See this post:

Miami Al said...

Create a communal fund that contributes $8000/student as a voucher, and I'll show you a school budget at $24,000/student, less an $8,000 voucher.

The schools price to "profit maximize," only instead of profits, it's bloated budgets, raises for "underpaid teachers" (underpaid they are not, they are choosing to work there, clearly they are better at the school then elsewhere, across the board raises are stupid), and other nonsense.

JS, part of the problem is that nobody makes a move elsewhere in the country without considering what happens in NY. People refused to consider how to respond to Ben Gamla's opening because "they tried it in NY and it failed," and other nonsense. Anything that happens in NY ripples out here in Jewish land.

JS said...


It's worse than that. In the NY area, no one makes a move without seeking broad communal and rabbinic support. Consider the 5 or so yeshivas in Bergen County. No one school can act independently even if it wanted to because it is too deeply intertwined with all of the other schools, communal institutions, rabbis, etc. So, if you want anything to get done, you need about 20 different organizations and "leaders" to sign on to the effort. So, you need to get the board members, the trustees, the shul rabbis, the RCBC, the YU, the YU's University-School group, the OU, their School group, JEFG, NJJKIDS, and the guy who owns the local bagel shop to all sign on. It's complete insanity.

David said...

Bad plan. Good people (in most likelyhood)