Talking with Yeshiva Dad, Founder of the Yeshiva Sanity Blog

Talking with Yeshiva Dad, Founder of the Yeshiva Sanity Blog
  • The issue of a sustainable Jewish education is a hot topic these days, especially with the arrival of the blended learning model in schools like Yeshivat He-Atid in Teaneck, WTA in New Rochelle and Tiferet Academy in the Five Towns.

    As early as 2011, an anonymous blogger who goes by "Yeshiva Dad" began a blog called Yeshiva Sanity, which has been covering the issue of tuition in the yeshiva system.


    Recently, Yeshiva Sanity published an interesting back and forth between Rabbi Krauss of the SAR high school in Riverdale and Meir Nordlicht, founder of the Affordable Jewish Education Project.

    Since we're always interested in interesting back and forths on ReplyAll, thought I would invite Yeshiva Dad in for a conversation with my co-host Rabbi Sommer -- who spent over a decade in education before ultimately moving on (at least for the time being).

    Yeshiva Dad, what has changed in the two plus years since you began blogging about the tuition crisis?
  • in the past 2 years local yeshiva day schools started to take the "tuition crisis" seriously. While they always professed to being considerate about the need to keep tuition to a minimum, only in the past 2 years did they start making actual cuts and keeping tuition flat. Most of them also cut their pre-school costs.

    I think what triggered the change was the groundswell of opposition from parents to the constant tuition hikes that had become routine over the 10 prior years. There were always scholarships available but for middle income parents who didn't qualify for the scholarships or who qualified for very small scholarships, tuition had become unbearable. So parents started to speak up, both online and in person and school boards and administrators finally got the message.

    Of course by the time they started making cuts, the creation of Yeshivat He'atid was already underway, which has overall costs of about 40% less than the other BC schools (depending on ages and number of children). With this new competition the pressure on the other schools has increased tremendously.
  • You've written extensively on this issue -- but for those who haven't read your blog as closely, what would you identify as the key factors that raise costs at Yeshiva day schools? Where, in your opinion, is the waste?
  • The schools that have released financial information report that about 85% of costs are salaries and about 85% of the salaries are for teachers.

    I don't think the problem is just one of "waste" but one of luxuries that as a community, we simply can't afford.

    For example, too many classes have 2 teachers in them. Some pre-school classes even have 3. When we were kids, most classes had only 1 teacher. I think class sizes can be increased to 25 each. Research on whether or not it impacts education is inconclusive. In Israel some classes have 30. We also should consider whether we really need separate teachers for art, music and gym in the lower grades. And whether or not we really need separate principals for different age ranges and for Judaic and secular studies.

    Also, some job perks were starting to get out of control until recently. For example, a teacher with 3 children in the school getting 50% off tuition and having the other 50% being paid pre-tax was getting an effective perk worth over $40k in pre-tax dollars. For some admins it was 100% off! Fortunately that perk has been cut back in recent years.
  • Perhaps I ask this question because I spent many years in the classroom, but you are concerned that, as these perks are cut or eliminated, that there will be a departure of teachers from teaching, or that the quality of those entering the field will suffer?
  • There are teachers in the school whose children already graduated elementary school & aren't getting the perk at all so obviously they are paying market value without it.

    I don't think it needs to be eliminated but perhaps cap it at 2 children and 40% off each one. They should keep the "qualified tuition" where tuition is pad pre-tax from any school (not just the one where the teacher works) since that doesn't cost the schools anything and is apparently legal.
  • As a follow up, do you feel that parents are getting their money's worth in terms of what the schools are providing?
  • I have no problem with the quality of the education in local schools. My children are learning a tremendous amount. There have been a number of local kids making incredible achievements in limudei kodesh, secular subjects and extra-curricular activities in recent years.

    I've always had a bit of a beef with Hebrew language instruction, even in schools that supposedly teach ivrit b'ivrit. I think kids should be fluent after 8 years of instruction. Still, it's better than when I was in school.

    I just don't know if there's a correlation between the amount a school charges and the quality of the education. I haven't seen any studies that control for factors such as socio-economic staus of the students that prove that it makes a difference.
  • I actually sympathize with Rabbi Sommer's point, and I always think about this with a simple analogy. If I go to an expensive restaurant that serves steak, and the steak is excellent, I won't remember the price. If the steak is so-so, I'm more likely to remember that I paid $60 and start asking questions.

    As strong as the schools are, if people don't see the correlation between paying high prices and their kids leaving school with an overall positive attitude towards Judaism, they'll be less likely to want to pay.

    My concern is that looking for solutions that lower the tuition and not necessarily improve the quality won't address the real problem.
  • A $60 steak is a luxury not everyone can afford, regardless of how good it is. And the public can't afford enough food stamps for everyone to get them.

    If we have a model that says that every Jewish child should receive a yeshiva education then we need to keep costs at a level where most can afford it and the community can afford to subsidize those that can't.
  • It sometimes seems to me that parents want two contradictory things. On the one hand, they want all the bells and whistles; clubs, plays, sports teams etc. On the other hand they want schools to be affordable. Do you think there enough parents who will accept the base model, as it were?
  • You're definitely right that parents want to have their cake and eat it too. They want all the bells and whistles (though rarely acknowledging that an assistant teacher, school psychologist and class trips are "bells and whistles") and yet they also complain that tuition is too high. That's just part of human nature. On the national level people complain that we should cut taxes and cut deficit spending yet don't want to lose any of the expensive programs that they benefit from.

    I can only speak for myself in saying that we need to make some real cuts even at the expense of losing some useful programs and staff. I think the big priority should be getting every child a decent Jewish and secular education. If they have to play ball by themselves rather than having an organized gym class that's a tradeoff I'm willing to live with.
  • Would it help if parents worked less and parented more? I feel like if parents weren't all working such long hours (in part, to pay for an expensive tuition) they could be at home with their children, and have less expectations from the school.

    Does that resonate with you?
  • I agree.

    There's also a growing trend nationally of parents taking on less responsibility & pushing more on to the public. For example, now some public schools are giving kids breakfast (lunch only started after WWII when generals complained about underfed recruits) and there are proposals for pre-schools to be covered by the public.
  • Do you think the better universities will accept students who don't have all the extras, and if not, what will that mean for schools following this model?
  • I doubt it will make much difference. First of all we're talking about elementary school. But even in high school, if a student applies himself and has support from his parents there's no reason to think he won't do well in school and on his SATs. He can do extra-curricular activities on his own time. They don't have to be done through the school. In fact it would look more impressive on a college application if he showed initiative and did things on his own, rather than through the school.
  • Do you see schools like Yeshivat He-Atid stopping the exodus to Hebrew language public schools and public schools in general, or just as being one option for parents who wish to save money?
  • I want to pile on Rabbi Sommer's question. I think we can agree that there's a problem in Jewish education. But are we sure blended learning and a technology based classroom is the answer?
  • Pesach,

    I don't know if there really is an exodus to Hebrew language charter schools or to public schools. We hear that threat all the time but at least where I live (in Bergen County) it seems to be hollow. They haven't been able to get a Hebrew charter off the ground here and the only students from Orthodox families going to public schools are ones who need a special program for either gifted students or students with learning disabilities, or siblings of such students. There might be a few exceptions to that but you can probably count them on one hand.

    That having been said, if they ever do get a Hebrew charter off the ground and there's a good after school program for Judaic studies I don't think that would be such a bad option. With strong knowledge of Hebrew they should be able to learn a lot in 2 hours a day after school.
  • I think He'atid did a great job its first year. I also think its necessary to start from scratch when you are trying to make affordability a top priority. You're never going to get the board of an existing school to fire much of their staff or cut salaries and benefits. The politics just make that impossible. So it really was necessary to create a new school

    As far as blended learning causing significant cost reductions, I don't really get it. He'atid had similar class sizes to other schools. Resource rooms at that age are pretty minimal. I think technology allows children to learn in a more engaged way and allows them to learn at different paces. But how it leads to major cost savings is a question to which I have never received a satisfactory answer.

    He'atid promises to reduce administration staff relative to the other schools and to keep scholarship funds separate from the general operating budget, but those ideas have nothing to do with blended learning.

    Whether or not He'atid can really maintain $9k a year tuition & whether or not it can be replicated at the high school level remains to be seen. But if it can be done it will be a major game changer for the orthodox community. It has been making life a lot easier for parents in the school and it has been forcing other schools to keep prices down.

    I think the board, administration and financial backers of the school deserve nothing but praise and gratitude from all of us.
  • I guess I come at technology in the classroom from another perspective. I've seen the rush to get technology in the classroom done in an attempt to show that a school is being cutting edge. I've seen good older teachers marginalized because they couldn't adapt these technologies.

    It was an interesting to read the article in the Times about how the school where the big tech people send their kids is tech free. Technology might be able to help with certain skills. Can it bring Torah alive? It might be able to get you to understand rules of grammar better, but can it make you care about the pesukim where those rules are found?

    In short, technology might be cheaper, what makes you think it will be better, or even good enough?
  • As in every industry, older people need to keep up when it comes to technology. This was true when we were kids & teachers had to switch from mimeograph machines to photocopiers and from typewriters to computers. It's true today when teachers need to use email and, increasingly, social media to communicate with parents, older students, and sometimes other teachers.

    That having been said, no one is suggesting we replace Rabbis with computers. Perhaps computers can help with Hebrew language exercises and can help students do research using online tools to look things up in tanach or in rabbinic sources. They can allow students who are home sick to log in and participate in the class from home. They can allow students to look up a Hebrew word they are not famiiar with without having to ask the teacher or another student. They can collaborate on projects with peers online. They can email their teachers with questions or download a homework assignment that they lost.

    How does any of this save money? I'm not sure. Perhaps it can reduce the need for assistant teachers. Maybe it can allow gifted students to do enrichment work with online students without needing an enrichment teachers. Supposedly it will also allow students having trouble in class to catch up without needing a resource room, though I'm a bit skeptical of that. If they are having trouble in class they will most likely need some human help.
  • Seeing how you are unsure, and even sound, at least to me, a little skeptical, what reason is there for the average parent to accept that these schools will really deliver on what they are promising?
  • I would urge everyone passionate about this issue to read the following article:

    YD, while I'm fully on board with changing the education paradigm to get tuition down -- and ultimately I think schools that are trying to fix the problem, rather than living with the status quo, will get it right.

    But call me skeptical on making the answer technology based.
  • R. Sommer,

    While I'm skeptical they can maintain $9K when fully built out I have no problems with how the school is being run right now. And if they raise tuition to $10k or $12k it's still much lower than any other JDS in the area. If it falls apart completely, it's not the end of the world. Parents can just switch to another school.
  • Fair enough.

    If I can change direction a bit, are you at all concerned that there will be a farther divide within the community between those who can afford a "luxury" model education versus those who can only afford the "base" model?
  • Growing up in a wealthy household gives you a leg up in so many ways. You have tutors helping you in school. Your parents pay for college so you graduate with no debt. Your less likely to engage in crime as a teenager because you can get most of your needs taken care of and you probably don't live in a high-crime area. You have contacts that can hook you up for a job. You can take a chance on starting a business because you can get seed money from your parents and can rely on them to help you out if the business fails.

    This is the reality of living in a capitalist country. Anyone who thinks there is true equality of opportunity is a fool.

    Going to a school with a low student:teacher ratio, lots of clubs and lots of assistant principals might help give an additional edge to those who can afford to send there but not as much as the other things I mentioned.
  • I am a mother of 5 in Los Angeles. My husband has a very good job, but this year our tuition bill for 4 children is over $70K. Let me repeat - over $70K post tax dollars!!! We applied for financial aid, and were denied. We cannot pay full tuition and still afford electricity, and are being forced to withdraw some of our children and home school them. After being completely humiliated by the financial aid committee, and embarassed beyond belief, we have to figure out what to do. I think the Yeshivas are quite aware of the tuition crises, but lack the Middos to handle things properly. How can we teach our children proper middos, when the very Yeshivot we are sending to are more concerned about their bottom line?
  • Hi Tania,

    I don't know about LA but around here the schools are all non-profits so there is no "bottom line." This means that every dollar they give you in scholarship is a dollar less in scholarship they give to someone else or another dollar they charge to a full-paying parent. The only real way they can reduce the tuition burden on all of us is to cut costs, and that means making real sacrifices. Instead of simply demanding that they should lower your tuition burden, talk instead about what cuts should be made to make tuition more affordable.

    Does a 1st grader need a separate art teacher? Do we need to fly in shlichim from Israel and pay for all their moving costs? Does there need to be a school psychologist or should parents take care of psychological needs on their own dime? Join the movement pushing for lower expenditures, and the lower costs will come.

    That having been said, the tuition assistance committee should certainly act with Derech Eretz, but I imagine you were more bothered by the fact that you were rejected than by what words they used to convey it.
  • Yeshiva Dad,

    What happens if, after they have made all the cuts they can, or are willing to make, Jewish schools are still not affordable? Is there a plan b?
  • I don't have a problem with a Hebrew charter school + an after school talmud torah. Attempts at starting up both failed last year but I imagine if there was enough demand both could work out. Right across the river signs are up for Harlem Hebrew, starting in September: http://harlembespoke.blogsp...

    I think sending kids to regular public school would have a very negative impact on our number of children remaining orthodox as adults in the next generation.
  • That is my concern as well, especially in light of the fact that those who are willing to try out something so radical seem be those who are a little less traditional/observant. Would you agree with that assessment?
  • Yes. Perhaps a young, hip Rabbi with a background in education can try again to start a TT?

    Even if the orthodox yeshiva crowd doesn't go for it perhaps some of the Solomon Schechter grads in Teaneck High would be interested?
  • That almost sounds like you are talking to me, although, at 42, I'm not sure I'm still young.
  • Yeshiva Dad,

    Thank you for your time and thoughts. This has been interesting and thought provoking.
  • Thanks Yeshiva Dad -- this was fantastic!
  • Good talking to you both!