In many Jewish homes, the conversation around the Shabbat table regularly circles back to day school education. Families are grateful that their children attend wonderful schools with resources and opportunities well beyond what my generation had access to. At the same time, they are often deeply troubled and stressed by the burden of sustaining a Jewish lifestyle and providing a robust Jewish education. Day school affordability continues to be among the most pressing and urgent challenges across Jewish communities in the U.S.
I have chosen to focus on this issue over the past two decades in partnership with so many like-minded and committed community members and educators. Like all day school parents, we are motivated by a belief that Jewish education is the single most powerful lever we have to impact the trajectory of future Jewish engagement, identity and vitality. Without this foundation, the molding of generations of strong Jews and Jewish leaders becomes an improbable, if not impossible, task.
My personal involvement began initially with the day schools my kids attended. I was able to become an active leader, eventually serving as president of The Moriah School and an executive committee member of The Frisch School. It opened my eyes to the massive undertaking involved in balancing the need to provide a quality Jewish day school education and the financial challenges that come along with it. From there, my day school activism evolved to encompass broader community and national work that includes serving as chairman of Teach NJ. Here are three imperatives I have gleaned over the past decades that I urge each of you to act upon:
1. Get involved in the schools that are nurturing your children during their most formative years.
The partnership of educators and parents is an essential underpinning of a dynamic, healthy day school. Apply your talents and resources in whatever space works for you: The experience will be deeply satisfying and your children will learn so much from seeing your commitment in practice.
2. We need collaborative efforts across multiple fronts to make a meaningful difference.
It is clear and incontrovertible that no single school can tackle the issue of affordability alone. In communities across the country, schools are increasingly collaborating to find efficiencies in their operations, share best practices and often raise funds on a community level for Jewish education. The national day school organization, Prizmah, is a phenomenal resource for excellence and sustainability. Our NNJ schools have been closely collaborating for over a decade. The NJ Metro West community has built one of the country’s leading communal day school funds that has had transformative impact on schools and families in that area. Schools, parents and communities must be involved in these efforts and fully leverage them.
3. Public funding can be a major new source of revenue and a key driver of affordability for day schools. Teach NJ is making it happen.
Four years ago, inspired by success in New York, Teach NJ was born. In simple terms, Teach NJ is the statewide platform that advocates politically for greater funding for the 150,000 nonpublic school students (10% of total students) in New Jersey. I got involved because of the importance and potential of securing additional revenue streams for day schools. But our initial challenge was significant: How could we change the political environment in New Jersey, and convince the governor and state legislature to invest in the safety, affordability and quality education of all of New Jersey’s children?
We began by building a state-wide network across all denominations that now includes our day schools, many Federations and numerous synagogues in partnership with the OU. The OU has done tremendous word across the country organizing professional efforts to drive increased funding at the state level. We also established partnerships with Catholic, other Christian, Muslim and nondenominational nonpublic school organizations to join us in our advocacy efforts. Together, we focused our efforts on building relationships with the governor and key elected officials who increasingly agree that New Jersey has an obligation to all of New Jersey’s children. We worked systematically to identify areas in which the government would provide funding to nonpublic schools. We increased grassroots political activism and voting across our communities and have made Teach NJ a household name that directly correlates with activism, opportunity and action.
Together, we’ve made very significant progress—including first-time funding for security that has now reached $22 million annually. Most recently we passed a bill and are helping to implement a groundbreaking program that provides the first-ever government funding for STEM teachers in nonpublic schools. In total, New Jersey state funding for nonpublic schools has doubled from $25 million to over $50 million since Teach NJ launched. Our elected officials are beginning to understand that it is their duty to invest in our children’s education as well. There is still so much to be done in this arena and so much more potential. To take our advocacy efforts to the next level, we now need every grandparent, parent and student to get involved in Teach NJ (see contact info below).
Much has been accomplished over the last couple of decades across our day school network but I am acutely aware that we continue to face substantial challenges to deliver excellence while ensuring access and affordability. The many efforts to date have dropped the tuition rate of increase from high single digits to low single digits more in line with inflation. Importantly, tuition assistance continues to be widely available. Personally, I am realistic but hopeful about the opportunity to bend the curve more dramatically over time through a combination of efforts. This must be at the top of our communal agenda and every community member and day school parent must be active in solutions—not simply table talk—if we are to make an even greater difference.
To get involved with Teach NJ please contact Grassroots Director Renee Klyman at 201-655-9948 or [email protected].
Sam Moed is the chairman of Teach NJ.