Tuition Relief

June 10, 2021


Activists’ Attempts to Gain Government Funding for Schools

Tuition costs have been an unbearable burden on private-school households everywhere. Is there an end in sight?

Dina Steinberg

It’s a problem that has affected our community for years, eating away at many a family’s financial security and menuchas hanefesh. While we appreciate the privilege inherent in paying tuition to educate our children with Torah-true values, for many, the burden of tuition is simply unsustainable. Schools, as well, suffer greatly as they struggle to cover their payroll and pay their bills and mortgages while families fail to pay up what they owe.

The Voice spoke to several parents, administrators, and business office workers who shared their experiences with what is known to many as the tuition crisis. Two individuals who have been working tirelessly to find solutions weighed in as well.

The parents speak

“My wife and I both work hard to make a living,” Eliezer Green* shares. “The tuition costs are really hurting us, though. We have seven children ka”h, and our schooling expenses greatly exceed our mortgage costs. We can barely make it through the month. Hashem helps, and we are doing okay. We pay tuition, we cover our costs. We just wish there were a way this huge load could be alleviated.”

Yosef Chaim Gold* learned in kollel for nine years while his wife, Leah, supported the family. For a long time, they tried to make it work. Their biggest expense was tuition, and the cost was just too much. Before last September, their children’s schools gave the Golds an ultimatum, telling them to either pay up or leave. With no other choice, Yosef Chaim borrowed the money from gemachs all over town and paid up his outstanding tuition bills.

The strain, stress, and utter shame are feelings that the Golds will not easily forget. After that tuition fiasco, Yosef Chaim felt pressured to leave learning, and today he has a job in sales to cover the family’s expenses.

This crushing cost has been choking families for decades. For a community so devoted to its children’s education, there has to be another way, one that allows parents to send their kids to school with dignity, peace of mind, and the assurance that their children’s learning won’t put them in the poorhouse.

The schools speak

Sara*, who works in the accounting department of a local girls’ school, says, “Although most families do pay tuition—hence our ability to pay teachers on time and keep our institution running—there is a handful of parents who just cannot make it work.

“The problem with tuition is that once you fall behind it becomes a big, black hole. The backlog can become overwhelming very quickly. It can quickly pile up to a debt of thousands of dollars, and it can feel impossible to ever repay. That is when parents give up. They feel like they simply cannot do it, and they throw in the towel. They begin to ignore the expense, preferring to pretend it does not exist rather than facing the monster tuition has become.”

Sara’s coworker Menucha* supports the sentiment. “When we call parents asking them to pay up, there are a few numbers that we do not bother dialing. Those parents are so behind in payments, they have despaired of ever catching up. They are the parents who never answer their phones for us; they avoid communicating with the school at all costs.

“And yet, they send their children here every day,” she adds. “And it is our responsibility to watch them, to love them, to teach them, and to somehow pay their teachers.

“The people who are not paying,” Menucha is quick to clarify, “are not living luxurious lives and ignoring their debt because they do not care. These people are struggling to make ends meet; they are simply trying to survive.”

What about tuition breaks? How often are they given, and to whom? What are the criteria for getting a discount?

Chaim*, who runs the business office at a Lakewood boys’ school, informs me that most kollel families who need a break get one.

Sara and Menucha’s school does not have a general tuition-break policy; they give discounts rarely, and on a case-by-case basis.

“Not everyone in kollel is poor,” Sara explains, “and not everyone who is working can afford the basics of life. Each situation is different.”

“Working in the business office can be heartbreaking,” Bracha*, a school business office manager, shares. “Some mothers and fathers are near tears when they speak to me. They are trying to make things work, but the expenses are just too huge. I wish we could help them all. On the other hand, we have seen so many beautiful stories. People call all the time to anonymously donate money to tuition balances. Sometimes they are siblings or friends of the families they are helping, and sometimes they are just acquaintances who know that the family is struggling. It is profoundly moving to watch, and it makes me feel so lucky to be a part of this incredible nation!”

They all agree that the stimulus checks have been a big help to both families and school administrations. Numerous parents called to pay up their balance after receiving the stimulus checks, and the relief in their voices was evident.

“However,” Chaim points out, “this is not true for the rare parents who owe tens of thousands of dollars. For them, the generous stimulus is just a drop in the bucket of their ocean of debt. Also, remember that some families did not receive stimulus checks.

“The bottom line is, across many income brackets, tuition is a massively overwhelming burden for most of the frum community. The burden of the debt is like a cloud casting a dark shadow on many a family’s life.”

The solutions

Last year, a revolutionary bill was passed in New Jersey which allowed private schools to use government-paid public school teachers for math instruction. This would cover about a third of the teachers’ salaries, significantly cutting costs for schools and, consequentially, for parents.

There are many similar grant options being explored which could potentially alleviate much of the cost of tuition.

Thankfully, dedicated representatives of our communities have been investing untold hours and efforts into creating a change for the better. (See sidebar.)

Sidebar here:
The Voice spoke with Rabbi Maury Litwack of the OU, an incredible individual who is working tirelessly to bring government funding to private schools in Lakewood and all across the country.

TVOL: When and why did you join the OU, and in what capacity?

Rabbi Litwack: I joined the OU in 2008 in its Washington, DC, office. I had worked in Congress and served as a lobbyist for Miami-Dade County, the country’s sixth-largest municipality. I had never considered klal work before this, but Nathan Diament, the OU’s advocacy director, is one of the best in the country at passing legislation and advocating on behalf of the community, and I could not pass on the opportunity to work with him. In 2013 my responsibilities grew, and I started to take on the tuition and education advocacy portfolio nationally.

TVOL: How did you get involved in getting tuition grants?

Rabbi Litwack: I was extremely worried about this issue from a young age. Growing up, my family struggled with tuition costs, and so did all our neighbors. It was a cloud that hung over all our heads. When my wife and I had our first child, we had very little money and no insurance; the first thought I had at his bris was, How am I going to pay for his chinuch?

My rav, Rabbi Gedalia Anemer zt”l, had built a community from scratch and was a real doer. He had encouraged me with regard to many local projects and was an inspiration for me to get involved.

A friend of mine tried to start a low-cost tuition model. We put in a year of sweat and hard work. When it could not get off the ground, I was devastated.

Then someone came to me in shul and said, “Why not marry your passion for government with the tuition crisis?” and the light bulb went off in my head. It made a lot of sense. Government funding is the only outside funding that can come into the system. Other countries do not have a tuition crisis because their governments pay for all schools—public and nonpublic. New Jersey pays more than 21,000 dollars a year per public school student. Why can’t they invest in our kids?

TVOL: Do you have any data about the financial toll tuition has on the average frum household?

Rabbi Litwack: I think data is hard to come by, as parents are reluctant to share that information. The best indicator is the rise in scholarship costs. In many schools this funding has increased 10–20 percent—that is simply unsustainable.

Let me tell you two stories to highlight this crisis. I have delivered well over 100 talks on the tuition crisis in over 50 communities. On one occasion, a zeide told me how scared he was to stop working as his children wouldn’t be able to pay tuition. On another occasion, a father of three cried to me that he was massively in debt. Again, this is a cloud that hangs over our community.

TVOL: What steps are necessary to get these grants? How long should the process take? What progress has been made so far?

Rabbi Litwack: There are two types of funding sources when we talk about “big-picture” government funding: tax-credit programs and funding for limudei chol. Let’s look to our neighboring states to understand the potential of each. In Pennsylvania the government incentivizes donations to scholarship funds by offering tax credits up to 90 percent of a donation. One in every two yeshivah students in the state next to us is getting a scholarship because of this funding; 16 million dollars flow to scholarship costs to yeshivos in Pennsylvania directly through this program.

The second is funding for limudei chol. We’ve always dreamed about this, with the logic being: we understand “separation of church and state,” but why can’t they pay for the secular teachers? Three years ago, we passed a bill in New York that addresses this. New York now reimburses yeshivos for the cost of their science and math teachers. This has never been done in history. Many yeshivos there are getting six figures a piece from the program.

New Jersey has seen massive increases to many core programs, including nursing and security funding. The state has been more open and willing to invest in kids than ever before. Excitingly, in New Jersey there now exists a limudei chol program that allows for public school teachers to be paid to teach in nonpublic schools after they are done with their public school day. That program shows a lot of promise, and we have big ideas for expanding it.

TVOL: How will the grants impact families? Will the tuition relief depend on income, or will the schools get the grants from the government?

Rabbi Litwack: That depends on how the programs are structured. Money can go to fund scholarships, or money can go directly to schools. Parents need help, as do the schools. We need to approach this from many angles.

Rabbi Avraham Klein*, who has tirelessly advocated for tuition relief for the frum community, shares his thoughts:

“Anyone who I speak with regarding supporting our families has agreed that tuition is the biggest financial burden. Therefore, getting these grants is a major priority.

“There are two components to getting the grants. One is to make the case. In short, we deserve our share in government funding. We pay taxes, and we deserve our slice of the pie (and this is without going into how much we save the government by not sending our children to public school).

“The second way is by supporting elected officials for their vote. It is very simple. Elected representatives want to satisfy their voters and supporters because they want them to continue voting them in. This is why voting is so critical.

“There are multiple forms of funding. There is the tax-credit program like the one in Pennsylvania. There is the fabulous voucher program that was just passed in Florida, in which each student gets a whopping 7,400-dollar school voucher. Obviously, that is a huge milestone. There is a third form of funding, which is lobbying for different services that private school children need and deserve. For example, several years ago, private schools were not receiving a penny from the state for security. Today, schools receive 150 dollars for each child. This method is more about focusing on one service at a time and lobbying for the funding that private school children deserve just like public school children.

“As far as how it helps the parents, certainly, if we were to get actual vouchers that would directly save parents tuition dollars, that would be a tremendous help for parents. However, even with the current funding, every hundred dollars that schools receive for a child is one hundred dollars less that they need to charge the parents in tuition.

“The most important thing each and every community member can do is vote and encourage others to vote. The politicians watch the votes. Our community leaders and askanim work tirelessly around the clock for us, but with your vote they can accomplish so much more!”

*Name has been changed