The “tuition crisis.” It’s a well-worn phrase in every Modern Orthodox household with school-age children. It’s a regular topic in the pages of this newspaper, and in a 2017 survey of American Modern Orthodox Jews it was ranked as the most serious problem facing the Jewish community by a wide margin.
We all know that the financial burden of sending our children to Jewish day school is a major challenge. And we spend substantial time and emotional energy on collective handwringing and analysis of possible solutions. But there is something that each of us can do today to help improve this situation.
While the tuition crisis is a complex problem requiring a multi-pronged strategy, one of the most critical pillars of any solution is collective advocacy directed at our local, state and federal governments for increased public funding for our day schools. In New Jersey, we are fortunate to have a stellar organization whose mission it is to direct and organize this advocacy effort on our behalf: Teach NJ.
Why is Teach NJ’s advocacy so critical in resolving this problem? Consider the following example: as parents of children we know all too well that, while we strive to treat our children equally, often it is the child who most persuasively and persistently advocates for what they want that receives the desired outcome. All the more so with our local, state and federal governments. Businesses and business associations invest in lobbyists because years of experience have taught them a simple truth—lobbying pays. Elected officials respond positively to consistent and persuasive advocacy. They almost never respond to silence.
With respect to advocating for public funding for our Jewish day schools, the last several years of Teach NJ’s work have provided a proof of concept. Since Teach NJ began its advocacy for New Jersey day schools in 2015, state funding for our schools has increased from $28 million to $60 million in last year’s state budget; more than double. Teach NJ has also succeeded in changing the way that New Jersey legislators think about nonpublic schools. Rather than viewing these schools as a luxury chosen by wealthy parents over free public schools, they increasingly understand that, for our community, sending children to day schools is not a lightly made choice but is rather our only reliable option to pass our tradition and religious values on to our children. And our legislators are also beginning to understand the economic diversity of the day school community and the crushing financial burden of tuition for many day school parents.
But New Jersey legislators don’t get to this point in a vacuum. It is only through regular encounters with effective lobbyists, spokespeople and constituents that they come to see the day school movement through our eyes. That’s why organized advocacy is so critical; it enables our government officials to understand our perspective and motivates them to steer government funds to our schools.
But Teach NJ needs our support to advocate for our kids. And that’s where you come in. Yes, you there, sitting at the dining room table, or laying on the couch in your living room, or glancing at this article in the shul lobby or your local kosher grocery store. On Tuesday, May 11, from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Teach NJ is organizing a virtual mission to Trenton for day school kids, parents and community members to advocate for state funding for our schools and support for our students. The cost to attend is $180, and that tax-deductible donation provides critical support for Teach NJ’s advocacy efforts. You can sign up by visiting teachcoalition.org/njmission. Registration deadline is May 4.
When you attend the mission (from the comfort of your home via Zoom), you’ll get expert training on how to effectively communicate the importance of nonpublic schools, and then you’ll be placed with other mission participants and Teach NJ staff on a Zoom call with an elected representative to advocate for our cause. Don’t worry; I’ve done this before, and Teach NJ will be there every step of the way to guide you as you “meet” with your New Jersey state senator/assemblyperson.
When we consider the burden of paying for day school tuition, each of us as individuals, and our community as a whole, has a binary choice. On one hand, we can play the victim, bemoan the steep tuition that we pay, and direct our complaints and anger at the system, the schools, the scholarship committees, other parents, etc., for putting us in this difficult situation. On the other hand, we can ask ourselves, “what can I do to make this situation better?”
There is a world of difference between these two approaches. As Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, z”l, noted, under the first approach “I see myself as an object acted on by forces largely beyond my control.” Under the second approach, however, “I see myself as a subject, a choosing moral agent, deciding which path to take from here to where I want eventually to be.”
I want to be the second type of person. That’s why, when Teach NJ called and asked my wife and I to co-chair this Mission to Trenton, we said YES. You have the same choice. Do you want to stew in useless anger and frustration, searching for a convenient scapegoat, or do you want to be a “choosing moral agent” and play your part in solving this problem?
And so I am asking each of you to join me and Teach NJ on this Mission to Trenton. And if you can’t attend the mission, then please make a donation—any amount helps—to support Teach NJ’s advocacy. Every dollar of support to this wonderful organization is likely to yield exponential returns in increased government funding for our schools.
Alone, none of us can solve or even make a dent in this tuition crisis. But, together we can move the needle on this problem. Join us, and together let’s chart a brighter future for our kids and our community.
Steven Starr is an attorney and lives with his wife, Keshet, and his children, Ellie, Moshe and Meira, in Hillside, New Jersey.