HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Tuition Assistance Headaches

by Paul Shaviv Issue: Ethics

The Jewish school system has an inherently self-contradictory aspiration: it wants to combine every desirable feature of the most elite and well funded private schools with the “as of right” accessibility of the public school. We want to give every child a Jewish education—but many cannot afford the tuition fees that we must perforce charge.

Should you avoid a furor, and just let the situation go for a final year? Or, in fairness to other parents, dig your heels in?

The answer is, of course, that those who can afford to pay do so; those who cannot are generally given tuition assistance. (Uncomfortably, Jewish schools from the get-go are a central, costly part of the expensive hobby of being Jewish.)

Life, however, is not so simple! Every school is aware of the multiple practical and ethical dilemmas that the system generates. You may find the following sample case studies familiar—all names are imaginary, but the circumstances common.

1. Family spending priorities in the upwardly mobile middle class

David and Zara are both successful professionals. David is a rising partner in a successful law practice, and Zara is an accountant. Between them, they are earning well into six figures. Their three children have attended Jewish day schools. As their first child enters high school (and the others are not far behind), the parents are arguing with the tuition committee about the jump in the tuition fee. Fees are being paid out of current income. David and Zara have worked hard for their beautiful home, and are proud that they both drive fashionable SUVs. Their family expenditures, they feel, are not excessive and are appropriate to their social class. “We just can’t afford these fees,” they complain. “Our mortgage is high, and the monthly costs of our autos are also high. This year we have the bar mitzvah of our middle child, and we are taking the entire family to Israel to celebrate. Plus—we are not eligible for summer camp subsidy. We are prepared to continue to pay at the same level as we are paying for day school, or we are taking all three kids out of the system.”

On the committee sits Naomi. She and her husband, probably earning similar incomes to those of David and Zara, are totally committed to Jewish education for their children. They recognize that they are earning high incomes, and have made a decision never to apply for assistance. Two of their children are already in Jewish high school. They cover the cost of tuition fees by a combination of careful budgeting, foregoing expensive holidays and the like; driving decent but not extravagant autos; and living in a decent, but not extravagant house. They expect that at some stage they will remortgage their home to cover tuition fees when all of their children reach High school, or to cover college expenses.

The reader’s dilemma: The committee has to vote on David and Zara’s application. You are Naomi. Do you:

  • Vote to turn down their request for tuition assistance? (The system loses three children, and much revenue).
  • Ask the committee chair to try and negotiate a midway position?
  • Recognize reality, approve the request, and make a mental note to have a serious discussion with your husband when you get home? (“Are we suckers?”)

2. Is this family on the level?

Your school has a rigorous system of allocating tuition assistance, requiring comprehensive disclosure of tax returns and other financial documents. The process is well administered, complaints are few, and confidentiality watertight. Family H are well known in the community; they are originally Iraqi Jews, and live in modest housing. Mrs. H is a secretary in a local Jewish organization, and Mr. H, apparently retired early “on medical advice,” worked in the mailroom of another Jewish institution. Their only daughter is a conscientious and admired student. Based on their very modest salary income, they have enjoyed extensive tuition assistance throughout their daughter’s schooling, paying minimal sums.

You are the chair of the tuition committee. Your executive director calls you, and brings to your attention that on the documents submitted this year, there is a puzzling reference to “income from rental properties.” When this is queried, and details requested, the father turns up at the school within hours, claims the tuition documents back, and says there has been a “mistake.” Two days later, he submits another set of documents, in which no references to the additional income appear. He also claims that he “doesn’t have” tax documents for the year in question. The school turns down his request for assistance, pending full and satisfactory disclosure. Calls from outraged community personalities and rabbis follow, alleging discrimination and a list of other unpleasant things. The school, bound by strict confidentiality, says nothing. The girl has one more year at your school.

The reader’s dilemma: As chair of the tuition committee, your executive director is requesting instruction. Should you avoid a furor, and just let the situation go for a final year? Or, in fairness to other parents, dig your heels in?

A few simple operational principles go a long way to pre-empting argument and conflict. Most of all—in almost every case where you apply stringency, you are penalizing a child for their parents’ actions or decisions.

3. Special treatment

The school has strict policies regarding unpaid tuition fees. Parents more than one year in arrears of the agreed tuition fee are required to withdraw their children from the school, and, painfully, this happens. But you—as head of school—suddenly discover that two long-term board members, both socially and professionally very much connected to the school’s leading families (and, in one case, president of a local synagogue), are several years in arrears. One of the families has a new child due to enter the school in a few months’ time. When you carefully raise this with the president, you get a dark look and s/he says curtly, “Leave that alone.”

The reader’s dilemma: Do you stand by and see other children forced to leave the school, while these families continue to enjoy special treatment? Interfering here will bring you into serious conflict with the president and (the very close-knit) board.

Alternate / similar scenario:

Your school is relatively young, and still controlled by the “founding families.” You have a long way to go to regularize governance. From the beginning of the school, assessment of tuition assistance was undertaken by Morry, the first president’s brother-in-law. He retains the job, and every time this is challenged, he protests loudly about the amount of time he spends on this each year. But rumors abound that he exercises a lot of personal preferences, treating some families very differently from others, and is also very much influenced by calls from community personalities pleading the cause of this or that family.

The reader’s dilemma: Choose your role (head? executive director? president? treasurer? board member?) and decide how you deal with it!

4. “The school gave me a special deal!”

Two sets of parents ask you for a meeting. They come into your office very angrily, and explain that they are outraged because their common neighbor (“Mr. K”), who lives in the same street, has been bragging that he is receiving tuition assistance for his three children, while they are paying full fees. Has the school not noticed that the “K family drive large cars, take fabulous holidays, and last year married off their eldest child with a sumptuous wedding at the local country club, while we are honest and struggle to pay full tuition”?

Well, it turns out that Mr. K, who actually pays full tuition for his children, normally in a single check at the beginning of the year, is a very canny businessman. He is always pleading poverty (“Times are hard”) to suppliers (“I can’t pay a fraction of a cent more”) and customers (“I just can’t lower the price any more, believe me!”) alike. On this basis, he is actually making an excellent living! Challenged publicly about how he could afford three children at private school, he apparently claimed that “I went to them and they gave me a special deal on tuition!”

The reader’s dilemma: How do you pacify the complaining parents?! And do you say anything to Mr.K?

5. “Why am I subsidizing the other parents?”

After dealing with “l’affaire K,” the school now has to deal with another group of angry full-fee paying parents. The school has limited endowment funds available to fund the school’s operating budget against the loss of income arising from reduced tuition fees. Low interest rates in recent years have aggravated the situation. In fact, quite a lot of the gap between income from families on reduced tuition and the per capita cost of running the school is simply borne by the operating budget as reduced income. Effectively, therefore, every full-fee paying parent is subsidizing others on reduced tuition. A group of parents are demanding that the board either a) limit tuition assistance dollars to the resources available, or b) only accept students on tuition assistance to fill classes after all full-paying students are offered places, or c) not allow students on tuition assistance under any circumstances to be a source of added expenditure to the school.

The reader’s dilemma: You are chairing the board meeting where this is to be tabled. How do you introduce the discussion?

* * * * *

The administration of tuition assistance, however well set up, is frequently beset with moral, ethical and practical pitfalls. Similar considerations apply to students who ask assistance to go on school trips, where documentation is not usually rigorous (if requested at all). Do you simply give them the same pro-rata assistance as their parents receive for tuition? How do you react when a parent who claims extensive tuition assistance suddenly pays large sums of money for the student to participate in a school ski trip? How can the school navigate the battles over tuition where the parents are separated, divorced, or—as is reasonably common—simply do not agree whether their child should attend a Jewish school or not?

In the nature of the issue, there are no magic formulae. However, application of a few simple operational principles will go a long way to pre-empting argument and conflict:

  • Most of all—in almost every case where you apply stringency, you are penalizing a child for their parents’ actions or decisions.
  • School documents should state clearly that tuition assistance is offered according to the school resources available, on condition that applying families make appropriate financial disclosures, and on the assumption that all families “will allocate tuition as an appropriate priority in the family budget.”
  • Tuition assistance should be handled by a totally confidential, “arm’s-length” lay committee—perhaps composed of former, not present parents—with professional support in the school tuition office.
  • The process, the application forms and—most of all—the criteria should be clear to all parties; some schools automatically send application forms to all parents, so that parents do not have to ask for them.

The committee should be prepared to consider reasonable special circumstances, and should process requests quickly and efficiently. An appeal process should be available.♦

Paul Shaviv is Director of Education at TanenbaumCHAT, the high school of the Greater Toronto Jewish Community, and is the author of The Jewish High School: A Complete Management Guide. He can be reached at pshaviv@tanenbaumchat.org.

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Ethics

Jewish law and practice mandate a society based on strict ethical standards and principles, tempered with great sensitivity to the complexity of real-life situations. This creation of the mentsch that emerges from these ethical practices resonates with many day school families. Jewish ethics offers day school leaders and students tools and approaches to confront daily challenges and dilemmas and guide decision making. 

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