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Making Jewish Day School Education Sustainable

The Jewish Day School movement had it’s contemporary origins in the post era about 70 years ago.  It has been one of the most significant factors in the resurgence of Jewish identity in the Diaspora.  Prior to Jewish day schools, Jewish education was consigned to the Yeshiva, and reserved for the intellectually gifted student.

Turn the clock forward to our current era, and there is common consensus on two matters.  Firstly, that Jewish day school is the most ideal and effective medium for promulgating Jewish identity.  Secondly, that the current system of private schools is financially unsustainable.

It is a very noble ideal and common mantra to hear that “no Jewish child will be denied a Jewish education on the basis of cost”.  But the sad reality is that in fact many Jewish children are withdrawn from Jewish day schools due to the burden of school fees that is beyond the average household budget.

Extending the issue further, the objectives of why we send Jewish children to day schools requires further discussion.  Whilst for some, the value of Jewish studies is paramount, and a priority requirement, for others this is incidental (and in some cases a deterrent). What type of product do we want from our day schools?  Is it gemara scholars?  Is it dutiful young Jews who will marry into the faith (a culture of “mission accomplished”), or is it to produce committed Jews who will be future members and leaders of our Jewish community, who develop their own committment towards raising a Jewish family of their own?    It is important to identify the objectives, because the cuture and direction of the school then becomes guided by them.

We are very fortunate in Perth to have a modern Orthodox  Jewish school that provides for the spectrum of the Jewish community, that has very effective leadership, and now boasts first class infrastructure.   Carmel School lists its aims and objectives on its website.  I don’t propose to use this post as a forum to debate whether these objectives are the best value statements for the school, or whether the day to day activities of the school are fully aligned with its objectives.  But I challenge anybody to demonstrate a model of educational and social cohesion that is as effective or as accessible for young Jewish people in Perth than that outlined by the vision of Carmel School.  It is primarily because of Carmel School that the Perth Jewish community retains its core of young Jewish families, and that the youth of our community demonstrate so much pride in their Jewish identity.

There are approximately 600 children in Carmel School.  As a percentage of Jewish children in Perth, this could be as high as 30% or 40%, which would exceed the norm in most Jewish communities.  However, even if this is the case, it still means that there are another 1,000 children, possible more, that could be students at the school.  Most of these children would receive little or no Jewish education.  From a communal wide point of view, an enhanced role with appropriate economies of scale would enhance the viability of the school, with fees far more within reach for “middle class, average wage” families than it is now.  With even another 20 or 30, let alone 200 or 300 additional students enrolled at Carmel School, the burden of school fees would be significantly relieved.

There are a number of Jewish children whose parents do not send them to Carmel School due to affordability.  This is understandable, and even with a level of financial assistance, it is not easy for families in this situation to meet the committments of school fees.  In addition to the cost of raising, clothing, feeding and entertaining a child, a further quarter of a million dollars per child is needed to buy them a Carmel School education across their tenure.  I can understand and respect families, especially larger families, who simply cannot accomodate this financial committment.

What I am unable to understand or respect, is Jewish families who withdraw their children from Carmel School to send them to other private schools, including faith based schools.  The messages they send to their children and to the community are simply a rejection of Jewish values, both individual and communal.  They are proclaiming that social and business connections are more important than community.  They are rejecting the tenents of their Jewish faith, by exposing their children to mixed messages and alternative religious doctrine at the expense of Jewish heritage.  They are denying their children the best opportunity for a Jewish education that is available to them.  In doing so, they adversely impact the economic viability of Carmel School as a communal institution.  As of today there are at least 100 Jewish children at Christian private schools.  This is an attitudinal slight on the Perth Jewish community as a whole.

The problem of Jewish day school viability is not unique to Perth or even Australia.  As previously mentioned on this blog, about 10,000 Jewish children in Australia attend a Jewish day school.  At the average cost of $20,000 per student (including fees, stationary, uniforms and extra curricular costs) that is a $200 million annual spend.  It is an unsustainable spend, and one that charitable subsidies will not solve over the long-term.  With private school funding models under review and with the cost of living escalating at a rapid rate, the problem will get significantly worse over the next decade.

It is time for the Jewish community of Australia to develop alteranative models to private Jewish education, including consideration of the UK and New Zealand models of public Jewish education.  In proposing this, a new Australian concept could be developed and led by the Jewish community of Perth.  A model would need to be formulated, and the State Governments and its agencies would need to be presented with a business case the evidences that both the Jewish community, and the educational system would be advantaged.  The first premise of such a proposal would note that a certain level of Government funding is already delivered to private schools to support their viability.  This can be restructured to bring the State system closer to Carmel School as a special purpose community institution.

With the right level of vision and committment, Perth could be an innovator, developing a hybrid model of public and private Jewish education that is delivered under the roof of the same campus and the auspices of the same administration.  If that sounds too utopian, think of our health system as a comparison.  When you are admitted to hospital, you are asked whether you are a public or private patient.  You can enter the hospital as either, and are assured of a minimum standard of care.  If you are a private patient, you have certain options available to you, including choice of specialist, choice of room etc.

There is no reason why a similar concept is not transferrable to the world of education.  The community could deliver the “State” the use of facilities at no cost or burden to the taxpayer.  The State could then deliver Carmel School a student body that would otherwise be within the public school system in anycase.  It is a model where everybody wins.  It represents the optiumum use of facilities, meets the designated special needs and character of the Jewish population, and makes a strong social statement of economic equality.  It is the educational equivalent of a Public Private Parternship, based not on infrastructure, but on community.

Under the terms of the above model, the Jewish studies would be isolated from secular studies.  This is already the case, as itemised by Carmel School in their current fee structure.  It would not be expected that the State fund any student for Jewish studies, public or private.  However the secular studies component under a “public option” could be State funded, and delivered under a prescribed curriculum, with set subject options and education system accountabilities.  The public pathway would not deliver the same level of flexibility or extra curricular options as a private school education, but the social integration of Jewish students would remain seamless, as would their opportuity for Jewish education.

In 1867 Otto Von Bismark coined his famous quote “politics is the art of the possble”.  The question is whether the Perth Jewish community has the courage to challenge the status quo.  Something has to change, and the formula is to either grow the number of students, or change the funding model, or both .  However, we cannot afford to sacrifice Jewish tradition and what we really need to have in mind is that we are not fighting for every last dollar, but rather we are fighting for every last neshama.

The above model may not be the only potential solution.  In WA we do not have alternative structures such as the Board of Jewish Education.  The Perth Hebrew School fills a void in the community, but this is limited in effect due to the level of resourcing and time available.

Delivering public education through Carmel School is a concept that has yet to be seriously considered, and it may be a proposal that proves impossible to materialise.  However the time has come to rekindle the debate on whether private Jewish education is the sum total of what our community has to offer, and whether alternative solutions can in fact be designed that creatively combine public and private funding models.

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