This issue is tied to another lamentable phenomenon in contemporary Orthodox life: the sharp decline in the giving of tzedakah. There are, of course, persons who fulfill their tzedakah obligation, but let’s not kid ourselves. The giving of tzedakah is in decline in a frightening number of homes, a point already made more than a generation ago by Rav Moshe Feinstein. The situation surely has not improved since.
Let’s also acknowledge that for every dyed-in-the-wool tuition cheat, there are certainly many more parents who struggle honorably to meet their obligations at a time when they are also struggling to meet other critical needs. We need not be economists to recognize that an extraordinary number of religious Jewish families are relatively low income, even when both parents work. We ought not turn a blind eye to the cost of religious living or to how the steady increase in family size that has occurred throughout Orthodox life has added immensely to the financial pressure on many families and has a direct bearing on the ability to pay anything close to full tuition. This situation has worsened in recent years because of the economic downturn.
There is a second tuition crisis, arising from the obsessive and often excessive focus on tuition collection as the solution to a day school’s financial needs. I accept, albeit with a measure of reluctance, the notion that our schools must, except in the most obvious and severe cases of hardship, impose a minimum tuition requirement. When there is clear evidence of parents taking advantage of a school’s scholarship policy – they take lavish vacations or have expensive simchas or renovate their homes – it is appropriate for school officials to adopt a hard line.
A hard-line approach, however, must be tempered by the recognition that emotional and behavioral harm may be caused to children who, after all, are not responsible for their parents’ refusal to pay appropriate tuition or, for that matter, their parents’ indulgence in luxurious living. Although a school may refuse to admit or re-admit a student whose parents are shirking their tuition responsibilities, during the school year each child must be treated with dignity, irrespective of the parental failure to do the right thing. This means report cards must not be held back, and certainly it is wrong not to allow a child into the classroom during the school year because of a tuition issue. Again, no child is responsible for his or her parents’ wrongdoing.
I cannot sufficiently stress how misguided is the belief that the collection of more and more tuition is the only or primary solution to a school’s financial difficulties. Without a strong and ongoing emphasis on fundraising, the financial pain is likely to remain, even after the institution has gotten tough with parents.
Too many schools rely overly much on the annual dinner, and that rarely works. New sources of income must be explored and schools must make greater use of e-mail in their fundraising. Lay leaders must understand their role is not to show how tough they can be with parents and children, but to show how determined they can be in trying to raise the necessary funds. At the many schools – primarily in the non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox sectors – where bylaw requirements severely limit the number of years a person can serve as president, the frequent change of leadership is a powerful formula for meager fundraising results.
I do not want to suggest that fundraising activities guarantee fundraising success, that money is out there for the asking. I know better from too much experience, including painful recent experience. Fundraising is hard work and too often unsuccessful. Too many people in our community who can contribute do not, and even among those of a charitable inclination, yeshivas and day schools are often low on the totem pole.
Just the same, if the effort is made, there will be rewarding results. As difficult as the fundraising environment is, it is not a justification for any religious Jewish school being cruel to children.