SOURCE: The Jewish Home
The cost of an observant Jewish lifestyle is a topic that has evoked many strong emotions and tough conversations. Though some expenses may be regarded as somewhat optional, yeshiva tuition is not considered a choice for committed Jewish families. The “tuition crisis,” as it has come to be known, is a pervasive concern that has been analyzed for decades.
“The crisis is the number one crushing issue,” says Maury Litwack, Executive Director of the Teach Advocacy Network. “It’s crushing because it’s hurting peoples pocketbooks, limiting family size, hurting people once they’re out of the system in planning for retirement savings – it’s the number one issue in our community.”
Litwack has some answers and believes that people are missing out on the most realistic solution, that of government funding. “For close to five years now we’ve been working on something that has made tremendous progress and really is a solution to this issue. What we’ve done this past year is we passed legislation in Albany, a culmination of a five year plan – which was accomplished in four – which was to begin to reimburse yeshivas and non-public school for the cost of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers,” explains Litwack.
The Teach Advocacy Network, a project of the Orthodox Union, has been endeavoring to make a real impact in the major Jewish communities, with advocacy groups operating in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania and California. The New York branch, Teach NYS, is a partnership between the schools, the OU, the Sephardic community, lay leaders, and volunteers and parents across the spectrum. Having made tremendous progress in 2017 in particular, those at the forefront realized the time had come to talk publicly about it, and for the first time government funding is being recognized as a serious and viable solution to a seemingly impossible dilemma.
With their recent successes in Albany, coupled with certain articles hitting the internet on the tuition crises several months back, Litwack and his organization decided to approach the New York communities to talk about their work. One piece online was penned by a parent who claims to have solved his particular crisis by pulling his family out of day school and changing his whole lifestyle to minimize the higher costs that are part of the observant Jewish lifestyle. As expected, there was much buzz and rebuttal to this drastic approach with many commenting and sharing the sentiment that while leaving yeshiva would not be an option, the current tuition is indeed a difficult situation for the community at large. Around the same time The Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews reported that 97% of respondents said tuition crisis was their number one issue.
Generally, the options regularly considered when addressing the high costs of a yeshiva education focus on lowering operating costs, changing the model, or increasing revenue. Litwack explains that there are numerous existing models for yeshiva life – from Lakewood and Brooklyn to Long Island and New Jersey with costs ranging from $5K to $15-20K and above, as well as learning models galore – such as blended learning models, cooperative models and others. He cites an example of a Jewish cooperative school in Florida where parents themselves come in as support. While he believes there are lots of good options and many discussions still to be had, at all levels schools still struggle to bring in the necessary dollars to educate their students. There is a basic cost to educating each and every child, and Litwack believes that the question really should be about why all children aren’t getting covered by the government.
To that end, Litwack’s efforts are focused on the government revenue side. “The only models where a child is educated for free, or at a very substantially reduced cost, are public schools or charter schools. Only in America have we decided that non-public schools are shielded from government funding. Almost every other country, from Israel to the UK, allows for funding and subsidies for non-public schools because they recognize the fact that it costs money to educate a child.”
Litwack feels strongly that the dialogue needs to change to fit the new framework that Teach Advocacy Network has established. “Many of the other suggestions for lowering a particular yeshiva’s tuition, which are all important ideas, would likely only slightly bring down costs,” he explains, as there will always be the baseline costs, whereas Teach NYS is focusing on a concrete, across-the-board solution. “The State of New York spends $20K plus to educate every public school child; it costs money to educate children,” he notes.
Litwack recognizes the struggle and the viewpoint of most of the parents feeling the impact of the crisis. “The viewpoint is one of pain,” says Litwack. He knows it’s hard to have a sophisticated outlook to a painful situation and that many families are feeling stressed and looking for an instant fix. “If you look at the tuition crises in a reactionary, immediate way, you don’t think long term and you’re not strategic about the solutions,” he cautions.
As a yeshiva parent himself, Litwack understands and appreciates the situation well. He has been working with the schools, and every administrator, rabbi and parent understandsthat we have to have the government subsidizing a serious portion of these costs. Litwack has been keenly trying to get this message out to the masses, having recently lectured in the Five Towns and throughout the Jewish community. While there are people who are listening and getting excited, he would love to see even more attending. “I think people are dying to hear about this, and if you don’t like what I have to say, then bring your ideas.”
He hopes that people who learn about their work will understand that something is happening – understand it’s a long term solution, understand that there’s progress and that we can do something meaningful. Though Litwack doesn’t back away from the criticism, he doesn’t think vitriol has any place in the conversation. We’re all looking for a solution to a problem that pervades all households. “To not show up and snipe from the sidelines is totally unproductive.”
While even a year ago people may have been skeptical about what can actually be achieved, Teach NYS efforts have brought concrete changes to the status quo – changes that are further reaching than the concept of tuition vouchers. Litwack wants people to understand and appreciate the profound value of what they working on.
“Years ago, Yossi Prager, who runs the AVI CHAI Foundation (an organization committed to the perpetuation of the Jewish people) said in an article that if you could figure out a way to pay for the secular side of instruction that it would provide a benefit in line with voucher programs. I actually believe it would be far better than vouchers; vouchers are income-based. In most places you only get a voucher if you qualify and you’re a low-income parent. If you’re making $200K a year or $400K a year, living on Long Island and you’ve got five kids, you may not be able to afford your tuition bills – you probably can’t – and in America that is not considered low-income.
“So, if we figure out a way to begin to reimburse the cost of the secular side of instruction, and we open the door, we should be breathing a sigh of relief that we pulled something off that has a path forward.”
“In April of 2017 – the first time in American history – the State of New York passed legislation that we advocated for that says that the State has to reimburse the STEM teachers at the rate that those teachers are paid in the public school system. So it does two things,” Litwack explains, “it begins the process of reimbursement to offset the costs of secular instruction in our schools and increases the quality of the education, because now we could pay those teachers a premium of what they’re being paid in the public school system – that’s a big one.”
He adds, “This legislation is better than vouchers – it’s much better.”
The reimbursement process will begin with the 2018 calendar year. The schools will submit for the reimbursements, and Litwack estimates that the average school will get one teacher reimbursed, or half of one teacher in year one. It will be a process, but Teach NYS will continue to grow the program going forward. Maury qualified that this estimate is all up in the air until they see how many schools apply in year one.
Schools need to apply for their reimbursements and Litwack’s team will help with that part as well – working with all of the schools to make sure they apply for it. Teach NYS has a team dedicated to working with the schools to make sure they get all the allocated funds. He explains that because of the way the bill is written funds are pro-rated. “Anybody who applies for the money will get the money, so we want as many people in the program year one as possible.”
How does Litwack answer those seeking measurable success and relief? He points to past successes. It’s been four years since Teach NYS passed the first legislation allowing schools to submit a reimbursement for the cost of security and security guards with the state. “We’ve gotten more security funding, which all the schools have implemented.” Security is certainly an expense that it even more vital now than ever.
“If you said to a parent that we could figure out a way to increase security at your school without the school having to pay for it, parents would say, ‘Yes, I’m in. That’s great.’ So if you said to a parent that we could figure out a way to offset the cost of one of the biggest costs drivers of school, the secular side of education, and make the education better so our kids know how to code and they were prepared for the next 21st century economy – that’s a big deal.”
“This STEM bill has benefits that goes beyond the tuition crisis. We want our kids and our grandkids to have the best jobs; we don’t want them to be reliant on us. Having our children being prepared for the 21st century economy is something that New York State believes in, which is why they passed the legislation, and now it’s something that will benefit our community as well. There are numerous benefits. If we get this program running and they’re getting a better STEM education, and the schools are figuring out a way to offset costs, this is a win-win for our entire community.”
How does Litwack respond to those who insist that costs must be lowered? “My response to people again and again is that I’ve seen costs being lowered in other states and I’m happy to talk about that. I have seen examples in New York of cost savings, I’ve seen examples in other states. I also tell people that we need people to participate and show up and be active.”
Litwack addresses the fact that the government funding will not automatically translate to lower tuition since the decision will still be up to the yeshivas to determine tuition costs based on their particular goals.
“In other states, we’ve seen tuition drop, we’ve seen tuition maintain, and we’ve seen tuition increase in states with more government funding. Some of the schools have taken the additional funding and they’ve talked to their parent base and they’ve made the decision to improve the quality of their education. They’re going to reinvest it in X, Y or Z. Others have said we can keep costs at a premium and others have said we can lower tuition costs. I think that when the government funding reaches a point that it’s serious enough, you could have those discussions.”
Furthermore, he doesn’t believe that tuition cost is the only concern for yeshiva parents and that, for many, providing a top quality education is the priority.
“I think it’s not true that everyone wants costs to go down no matter what,” observes Litwack. “Ultimately it goes back to the first part of the conversation: there’s a choice in education and there is a choice in our communities; there’s always going to be parent who want a $35K year education for their child and there are parents who are fine with a third of that cost. We can get the government funding in for schools, but ultimately the schools and local communities have to be the arbiters of where that money goes.”
With 50 percent of yeshiva families seeking tuition assistance, yeshiva leaders have to work hard to balance the priorities of providing a quality education to all and an affordable one to those in need. In Litwack’s experience, he has found that when given a choice between cutting tuition by $1K or $2K or securing a better education, a lot of parents would opt for the better education. The ideal is a quality education with costs coming down.
The more that the secular side of education can be covered, the more real relief can potentially be provided. “It depends on the community at this point,” Litwack notes. “We’re no longer in a situation where it’s theoretical at this point – this can happen, the bill passed. Can the impact of this improve over the next 2 or 3 years? Sure. Can it take 10-15 years? Maybe, it just depends on how much the community wants to roll up its sleeves and be active in it.”
Community members should know that they can make a difference. “We’re very public about the ‘3Ds’ – Doers, Donors and Door-openers. We need people who are going to show up in Albany, we need people who are going to show up in Nassau County, and we need people who are going to show up and make their voices heard in those halls of power and places where decisions are made.”
Last year’s Teach NYS advocacy mission brought 600 yeshiva kids, parents and others to Albany. Litwack would like to see that number grow for this year’s mission on March 13 with a much larger contingency. “We need more people from Long Island to show up and come there, just like they would for pro-Israel issues in Washington, D.C. We need them to show up for educational issues in Albany.” He explains that education is a state and local government funding issue, with 92% of all educational funding in America allocated from state and local government – not from the federal government – and that’s where they need people to go and be counted. “Having thousands in Albany as opposed to hundreds is a big deal – so people can, at a minimum, do that.”
On the donor side, Litwack explains that it costs money to operate the infrastructure of any advocacy endeavor. Teach NYS employs professional economists, lobbyists and public relations people on the team and needs the funding to continue to get the job done successfully, with the hope to “double-down” to make a bigger impact. “Last year we generated $150 million for yeshivas in government funding and we spent $2 million doing it. We probably need to spend $4 million doing it,” Litwack says. “It doesn’t happen on its own.”
As for the “door openers,” Litwack implores everyone to get the message out however they can. “I encourage everyone who reads this to take it and give it to someone else and say, ‘Hey – something’s happening, something’s working here. Let’s figure it out and let’s see what we can do.’ For anyone who’s participated or been a part of it in any way, encourage others. For the first time in American history something big has happened – and it happened in New York, which has the largest yeshiva day school population in the country. I think it’s time we go out there and really step up our game on all three of those – that’s what we’re asking people to do.”
Litwack has been speaking in many communities with many more on the schedule in the coming months. He says he is happy to come and have people debate or dispute, and views it as a form of taking action and getting involved. “That’s you taking action on the number one issue in our community, and I welcome it.” He says the crowds have been a mix of supporters and skeptics and those with other suggestions.
Litwack has a political background and has served on the development staff of two schools. He even endeavored to launch a low-income school when he lived in Maryland. “I’ve been involved in this issue in a variety of different ways and what I’ve learned from that is that if you do one thing well, you can do a lot. People can make an impact in many ways, but real impact takes time and effort.”
Litwack grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Now a father of four, ranging from a three-year-old up to 5th grader, Litwack currently lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, where his children attend yeshiva. He recognizes that sometimes people just want to vent about the situation, and he welcomes it. “I hear that pain and I’ve lived that pain – I’m happy to hear all of that.”
The time it takes to make a tangible difference will depend on the school and the particular community and the level of involvement from the community, Litwack explains. Though the security issue was a great way to open the door to funding, the guard in front of the school is not transformational. “The ‘imagine point’ here is to imagine a future where the secular side of education is paid for and imagine a future where our kids are the same quality of education as everyone else’s kids – that’s a future people are willing to invest in,” he illustrates.
He reiterates the importance of the community’s involvement, “It’s not an individual effort – it’s a movement – that’s how we pulled it off.
“Bringing 600 people to Albany changes the game, hosting politicians in Cedarhurst changes the game, sending out tens of thousands of action alerts changes the game – but by sitting on the sidelines you miss 100% of shots you don’t take.”
He adds, “People view our entity as a serious entity. We thank politicians when they step up and do the right thing and criticize when they do wrong thing and leave them out. That has been critical to what we do.
“We’ve had kids on the steps of City Hall protesting, we’ve also had kids waving signs in Albany thanking politicians. We believe the community has to have its voice heard in a loud way – that means showing up and participating. We’re known as a consistent single issue advocacy group working on behalf of the yeshiva day school kids.”
Aside from his advocacy work, Litwack was recently appointed to Governor Phil Murphy’s transition team in New Jersey. He is honored and feels that it’s a reflection of the movement becoming more and more tangible. “Politicians are recognizing us as a group that they can’t ignore. We hold them accountable.”
The six states where the Teach Advocacy Network operates represent 90% of the yeshiva day school population in America; with 1 out of every 13 children in New York City a yeshiva student. Aside from the STEM funding for New York, other states were successful in securing tax credits for scholarship dollars and funds for security, bussing, technology and nursing aid. The advocacy operations in those offices work with the same model of unified community, single action advocacy, and hire lobbyists and the best strategists to work on our communal issues.
Rabbi Hershel Billet, rabbi of the Young Israel of Woodmere, hosted Litwack for community-wide presentations on behalf of Teach NYS. The multiple events were well-attended and generally well-received. “Maury is articulate, smart, very knowledgeable, and totally committed to improving the quality of Jewish education while at the same time lowering costs,” says Rabbi Billet. “People were moved and very impressed by his presentations.”
The next mission to Albany is March 13th and surpassing 600 participants is the anticipated goal. Litwack is gratified that many people from the Five Towns community signed up immediately after his visit.
Litwack’s passion, determination and strong sense of responsibility are clear. “I like to win on behalf of the community – that inspires me. I don’t want to let the community down. I feel an incredible achrayis and I want to fulfill what my responsibilities are to the community.” He welcomes the continual community feedback and acknowledges that it strengthens his team. “People showing up and people talking to me gives our group a lot of chizuk – we hear it, and we hear the criticism – we want to work harder, we want to do better.”
“We’ve never had a down year – we’ve done well every year we plan to continue to do well for the community. We can’t afford to lose.”
After all, when we win, our children are the ones who are truly coming out triumphant.