The Fake Solutions series (part 1, 2) is going twitter-style, at least for naming purposes. If your’e nto already following me on Twitter (rejewvenator) then you’re missing our on infrequent but always on-topic updates and links. I know, how did you manage this long without it?

Anyway, a great conversation on Lookjed, the Jewish educataors’ forum, about the “no-frills” day-school model was inspiring. It perfectly illustrated the problem and the solution to our tuition crisis.

First, the solution! Many of the professional educators on Lookjed have pointed out that 80-85% of a school’s operating budget is consumed by salaries. Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz, head of the JEC in Elizabeth, NJ, shared that his 900-student preK-12 school has an annual budget of $12 million, of which $10 million (about 83%) goes to salaries. I’d like to publicly thank Rabbi Teitz for his transparancy!

Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Right now, schools are working with a student-to-teacher ratio of about 15-18. Let’s assume that they’re at 18 right now. Pushing them up to 27 would mean we would save 33% on teacher salaries. I’m not sure what slice of the $10 million for salaries at the JEC go to classroom teachers, but I suspect it’s pretty high, and that slashing those costs by a third may help cut the overall budget by 15-20%. That’s a real savings. It would also likely mean that schools like the JEC, that have something like 14 grades and an average grade size of 60-70 will need to shift their models to become larger. School consolidation will lead to overhead savings too.

Some may rightly point out that there are lots of positions, even beyond the administrative ones, that are not classroom positions. You can have 27 kids in a class, but that decrease the demands on your resource room, for example. To me, this is symptomatic of the problem. Reading through the Lookjed conversation, I see more and more that mission creep is a significant factor in rising school costs.

Put aside extracurrciulars, which are cheap and a net positive for schools since parents view their existence as a significant value-add. Focus in on those things which require hiring additional staff. Here are a couple of quotes that caught my eye:

“I found the … suggestion about a “no-frills” day school fascinating, even attractive. But as someone who was a day school administrator for a number of years, I am curious as to the viability of such an initiative.

Aside from larger class sizes (which exist in many schools already) what, exactly, would those schools eliminate? Psychological services? Academic support services? Technology? Co-curricular activities?

Many parents would end up then paying for many of these same services privately, perhaps even at a greater cost than the day school can provide. There would be out-of-school sports teams and clubs, counseling and tutoring, all at considerable expense. The net result would be that the financially disadvantaged would be shut out of those very services and activities that they currently receive in schools.”

— Zvi Grumet, The Lookstein Center

Cutting programs is enticing, as it can be lead to cutting staff
positions. But as others have mentioned, do we cut our social worker
or learning lab staff? The reality is that school staffs are
significantly larger than they were even a decade or two ago. We hope
that the additional staff improves our product. I would not risk
cutting the programs to find out.

— The aforementioned R. Teitz

The first quote suggests that we have socialized many non-essential costs into the cost of schooling. While some children undoubtedly require psychological attention, why is the cost for this bundled into tuition? If there is no marginal cost for accessing expensive services, you can guarantee that they will be overutilized. I agree that we need to help provide essential services to families that can’t afford paying full freight, why is providing this service part of the mission of the school? Why does it pay for these services by building their cost into tuition? I suspect that social-service agencies are more capable of both providing the services at lower cost and fundraising (either directly, or through federations) on the basis of the services they do provide. The same can be said for tutoring (which is routinely handled by other schools through volunteer tutors), speech therapy, and so forth.

The second quote captures the problem exactly. Many people are quite dissatisfied with both the product of day school education and the price. Tani Foger makes the point eloquently, calling out schools for failing to teach Hebrew, Jewish values, and even religious observance to the level that might be expected. The trend of the last few decades towards more programs, more ‘intervention’, more resource rooms, and so on has led to an unwiedly school system that has an uncertain mission, no vision for how to achieve its mission given limited resources, and a constituent base that is clamoring for drastic change.

One point, at least, is clear. We have to spend less on teachers. That means that we either pay teachers (even) less, or we teach fewer things, or we hire fewer teachers and have them teach more kids. On balance, the latter two seem like better answers than the former, but let’s not kid ourselves. Those are the choices.