How the MetroWest Federation capped day school tuition for its middle income families.
It was almost two months ago that the Federation of Greater MetroWest unveiled its plan to cap day school tuition at 18 percent of a family’s adjusted gross income for qualified middle-income families.
The announcement was part of Vision 2025, a 10-year initiative funded with a $10 million gift from the Paula and Jerry Gottesman Family Supporting Foundation of the Jewish Community of Greater MetroWest.
It is an initiative that has gained its share of notice throughout the nation.
But, according to one of its co-architects Steve Levy, it was an idea whose time had come, especially for the four MetroWest day schools participating in the program. The schools include: The Golda Och Academy in West Orange, the Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph, the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth and the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston.
First, one of the more telling comments made came from Paula Gottesman in an interview made earlier this year when she said, “The day schools had scholarships for families who couldn’t afford to pay much, and the wealthy could, of course, afford to pay full tuition. There was a big group in the middle that was not ‘needy,’ but day school education was just not within their budgets. These were families, making about $75,000 to $100,000 in salaries, but tuition for several children was too much of a burden.”
In an interview with the Jewish Link, Levy, the vice chair of the Greater MetroWest Day School Council, spoke candidly about how the Federation recognized an important need, had the support of philanthropists, and how it overcame so many issues similar to other day schools, including those here in our readership area.
“We started with a visionary philanthropist with the capacity to lead the community and donate millions to a specific cause,” he said. “In our case, it was Paula and Jerry Gottesman. It was their vision and financial support that made all of our efforts real.”
Levy said the effort included putting together what he called a “critical mass of school leadership that shared the vision of affordability and excellence as being key to their sustainable futures. When we started we insisted that the schools work together, and they have coordinated almost every aspect of our program as one unit. With a few financial incentives to get them started, they have quickly realized that together they were stronger. Our heads of school work amazingly well together. Our teachers share curriculum and participate in joint professional development conferences annually.”
As part of the plan, each school was asked to see if they had donors that had the capacity to give larger ($100,000-plus) gifts.
“We did not focus on one solution to our sustainability,” he continued. “We offered multiple programs that led to the Vision 2025 program. We provided each school incentives to build their own fundraising capacity, to connect with alumni, and to change their approaches to fundraising to include endowments and planned giving. We instituted almost $250,000 a year of professional development, training and incentives. We gave the schools funds to invest in Israel programming, science curriculum and Hebrew language curriculum.”
The program also included the critical element of new tuition assistance programs to shore up the middle class families. A central day school coordinator position was created in the community to market the four schools.
“In the end, I would say that our accomplishments took a lot of work, we were constantly adapting, but they were successful because we had a community that was supportive. I do not believe there is anything unique about our community that could not be replicated in another one. It could clearly not be identical, because it might take two or three donors to supply the same funding that the Gottesmans have, but I am confident that the same goals could be reached.”
Then came the realities. Levy said that if a school or community does not start to change their methodologies, if they do not look at other day schools as partners instead of competitors, if they can’t put in place the volunteer leadership with vision, their future could be bleak.
“Sustainability is the goal,” he said. “In almost every community there are funds to help, but the schools need to take on the responsibility of developing a compelling case for those donors to support.”
Levy said that all of MetroWest’s day schools should have been asking parents and donors to put the school in their wills for the past 30 years. And those same schools should have been asking for endowment donations as well as annual gifts.
“In the end, however, I have found it is important to remember that almost all Jewish day schools have very fragile financial models,” he said. “It starts with supply and demand, but particularly demand. In comparison with most private independent schools, Jewish day schools get less than one application for each available seat. The average private independent day school gets between three and five applications for every opening. We are almost always running our ‘business’ at less than capacity. Sure, there are some exceptions, but I would guess we are talking about 98 percent or more of the day schools that are well below capacity. This ends up driving certain decisions, such as higher-than-average levels of tuition assistance—in our community every school has at least 50 percent of their students receiving some financial aid, while the national average for private independent schools is less than two percent.”
Levy told the Jewish Link that he spent a great deal of time studying and analyzing the typical business plan and model of Jewish day school funding. He described day schools as “fragile.”
“It was a lot easier when tuition was $4,000 than it is at $20,000,” he said.
A model would show that a typical Jewish day school could have 600 applicants for 700 classroom seats. The school then has to charge a certain amount while running into the number of families who need financial aid.
“Private schools have moved from the low teens to the $20,000 range,” he said. “But they have the luxury of being selective. They are looking to add diversity to their population and that diversity doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to attend without scholarships.
Then there is another issue. It’s not uncommon for Jewish day schools within any area to compete for students instead of cooperate with one another. That behavior had to change within MetroWest for it to succeed at capping tuition costs for middle class families. We changed their behavior. Now it’s become built into the school culture.”
The business model includes models of cooperation among schools.
“I don’t know enough about the Bergen County schools,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything we did that could not be copied by them. I think it does come down to money oftentimes. You start off with a donor or major donors that think this is important and willing to show a commitment of leadership with a donation to make it all happen. You need an environment of support from a federation or some other group to get it together.”
Vision 2025 enjoys the complete support and cooperation of the MetroWest Federation. Already, Levy said he’s seen similar interests from Jewish federations in Baltimore and Atlanta.
“We have financial incentives for people to move to greater MetroWest,” Levy said. “We are an affordable community. We have incentives for families to send their children to our day schools. We hope that other institutions say they will be part of what we’re seeing.”
The Gottesman Foundation early on also invested in teachers and teacher training. That was something previously held back, because of financial pressures on schools.
“We’ve challenged everyone,” Levy said. “We have this level of excellence and affordability to build a successful Jewish day school.”
Vision 2025 more than doubled the affordability of day school to the middle class families. MetroWest was the first area selected to leverage PJ Library’s success.
“We have a program getting PJ Library to come to the day schools,” said Levy. “These are new initiatives. We are leading, but we’re doing it thoughtfully.”
Or, as Paula Gottesman commented, “Just as people pay taxes for public schools—and no one would say we shouldn’t do that—the Jewish community should tax itself for the education of our children. Our collective future should be the responsibility of the collective community.” Mrs. Gottesman gave as an example an employee of her husband’s who fell into “a big group in the middle that was not needy, but day school education was just not within their budgets.”
Tuition will be capped at all four Jewish day schools in the MetroWest region, thanks to a $10 million grant from the Gottesman Foundation. The Gottesman Foundation was one of the first in the nation to initiate a day school tuition-capping program for middle-income families. The first school to implement the program was the then Hebrew Academy of Morris County (now Gottesman RTW Academy) in 1998.
The tuition cap will be in place for 10 years and will apply to all families meeting the criteria for middle income families, with incomes ranging from $150,000 to $325,000. Each school will set its own criteria.
The full price of tuition ranges from $12,500 to $17,500 for kindergarten; $19,000 to $28,500 at the high school level across all four schools.
Greater MetroWest will become a pilot community for a national PJ Library Day School Engagement and Enrollment program, co-sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.
Vision 2025 includes new family incentives, professional development for teachers and an effort to market the area to prospective day school families. The family incentives begin in fall, 2016, when a new family moving to the area and enrolling a child into one of the day schools will receive a one-time incentive of $1,800.
In a Greater MetroWest survey of close to 500 parents, teachers and students, the cost of day school education was most frequently cited as the greatest limiting factor to enrolling a child in a Jewish day school. Greater MetroWest day schools show a rising enrollment for 2015.
By Phil Jacobs