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  • How should schools deal with the tuition crisis?

    Many schools struggle with finances often forced to raise millions of dollars a year and have difficulty paying their teachers timely and covering their bills. Would it be within the rights of the school to not allow entry to students who didn’t pay tuition, knowing full well the long term embarrassment it may cause the child? • Full Letter

    Many schools struggle with finances often forced to raise millions of dollars a year and have difficulty paying their teachers timely and covering their bills. Tuition is discounted so heavily that even if a school were to collect every dollar they billed, it still wouldn’t cover the costs for their payroll – never mind, the other expenses. 

    Some school administrators feel that some parents put their tuition payments on the back burner knowing/hoping that a school would never kick their child out for lack of payment. On some occasions, parents will send their children to school even if tuition hasn’t been paid despite repeated warnings from the school that they won’t allow the child to enter the classroom. 

    Would it be within the rights of the school to not allow entry to students who didn’t pay tuition, knowing full well the long term embarrassment it may cause the child? If it is allowed, are there certain conditions that must be met, such as a number of warnings to parents before doing this?

     

    Answer:

    As usual, there are two sides or perspectives to this issue. I will try to present an analysis of the issues for both schools and parents from a Torah perspective, particularly taking into account the Rebbe’s multiple talks and letters on the matter. At the same time, we will attempt to distinguish between the general Torah philosophy and attitude versus the actual bottom line Halacha in this regard.

     

    A. For The Parents

    Firstly, a word to the parents is in order: Unfortunately, some parents don’t appreciate the importance of paying tuition or they don’t attach much significance to paying it in a timely fashion. As you correctly pointed out, the collection of tuition isn’t an extra plus for the schools; it touches on their very existence. In order for the schools to survive, they need to pay their teachers, janitors, electricity and water bills etc. Thus, the collection of tuition is a necessary component for the schools to be able to keep its doors open (albeit even full tuition is far from enough).

    We find in the Gemara (Yoma 35b) that a cost was levied even on adult students to allow them entry into the Beis Hamidrash. The  Rebbe writes in a letter (English letter dated 29 Tammuz 5737) addressing this Gemara, “that the charge of a (relatively small) fee for admission was necessitated by the need to defray the costs of maintaining the school. “. The Rebbe explains that the Gemara reflects the general state of poverty of Jewish communities which could not afford to provide free tuition to advanced students.

    Parents who are able to pay, even with difficulty, yet don’t take this responsibility seriously must understand that by not paying tuition they are throwing their personal burden on the community. Many a parent would be horrified to be a tzedaka recipient, such as receiving clothing from the local tzedaka fund, yet they are comfortable doing the same when it comes to the education of their children.

    The obligation of a Torah education rests squarely on the heads of the parents, and NOT on the school. They ought to give this application priority before any other expenses. Tzedaka commitments should only be undertaken after tuition had been paid in full. (At times, delaying tuition might also involve the prohibition of Bal Talin (delaying payment to employees)).

    At a farbrengen (12 Tammuz 5724), the Rebbe once spoke about the need to provide a wholesome Torah education even in the summer months. As for the extra tuition costs that this involves, the Rebbe commented that the cost is relatively low when comparing it to the cost of a bungalow, traveling to and from the country, the items that break when traveling back-and-forth, plus all the extra amenities and other extras. The Rebbe also quoted the famous saying: the poor always travel first class. If they’re already borrowing money to travel, they might as well travel first class. Here too, if money is being borrowed to go to the country, we ought to travel first class and borrow a few extra few dollars in order to provide the children with a proper tuition.

    Another relevant point: parents receive special assistance from On High to successfully pay off their tuition obligations. Chazal tell us specifically regarding Torah education that it’s not included in the predetermined amount decreed in the beginning of the year for every individual. In other words, this means that whatever amount is spent on Torah education one receives the full amount in return from Above. Therefore, as the Rebbe has stated, there’s no reason for us to try to spare Him (Hashem) some extra money… He has all the money he needs.

    Moreover, Gedolei Yisroel have stated that the ultimate success of parents in the chinuch of  their children is directly linked to the level of sacrifice they have exhibited in providing tuition fees. As the Rebbe once wrote (Igros Kodesh XX:269) and I am paraphrasing here: This that you mention about the difficulties to undertake extra expenses for schooling, I am sure you recall the situation that existed in the Soviet Union where you used to live, where every one needed to apply Mesiras Nefesh in order to ensure that their children go in the proper path of Yiddishkeit and Chassidus. It didn’t involve only issues of money or health but it involved actual self sacrifice in the most literal sense. When contemplating this point, we need to consider: what import do financial difficulties have in relation to an education which affects one’s entire lifetime?

    It’s a well known fact that many Chassidim in the Soviet Union put their lives on the line so that their children not be exposed to the secular environment in the local communist public schools. While it’s obvious that American public schools are remarkably different than their counterparts in the old communist schools, it’s important to make mention that the Rebbe has expounded upon the multiple spiritual and religious dangers that could exist when being educated in a public school setting, even here in the USA, and in many ways this might apply even for non-Jewish students (see Likutei Sichos VIII p. 303). In the above-mentioned (English) letter of the Rebbe, the Rebbe states: “no sacrifice should be too great when it comes to Torah study. Even those who have been learning Torah every day, and it is a question of missing just one day (as in the case of Hillel), the same sacrifice should be made not to miss even a single day of Torah-study.” The Rebbe also decries the lax attitude of Jewish parents who fail to understand the critical importance of Jewish schooling and due to financial pressures or similar reasons send their children to public schools (Sicha Simchas Torah 5746).

    Another point to consider: Halacha tells us that the precedence given to Torah teachers over parents because they are providing for their spiritual well being does not apply when the parents are paying for the tuition costs; in this case, the parents themselves are considered the Torah teachers.

     

    B. For the Schools

    As for the school’s responsibility, Chazal extol the virtue of teachers who accept students from low-income families in the same manner as high-income families. The Gemara (Taanis 24a) relates how there was once a public fast on account of a drought, a lack of rain, for a very long time. One kindergarten teacher davened as a Chazan and immediately the rain descended. His unique Zechus was his attitude to low-income families; if he felt the family could not afford it he wouldn’t take any tuition.

    The Rebbe made a special request (2 Iyar 5736) that schools give free tuition to ten percent of the student body. Those schools who will increase the amount to more than 10% of the student body will receive a special bracha. The purpose of providing free tuition isn’t in order to give the parents a break. The parents anyhow need not worry about tuition expenses because this is taken care of from Above; Hashem has a special independent account for tuition costs. The purpose is so that the school attract students from low-income families. In fact, the schools should publicize their tuition policy in order to attract more such families to their school. The reason: Chazal say (Nedarim 81a) that “[we need to] be extra cautious when it comes to the children of the poor because Torah emerges forth from them.” Obviously, Chazal were addressing children of families who are not providing tuition to the school and the school needs to be encouraged to be extra cautious about how they treat them. These students have an advantage over other students “because Torah emerges forth from them.”

    Schools could find special sponsors who will sponsor such students or arrange special grants through various sources.

    It should be noted that many Christian schools are known not to turn back students on account of financial issues. We need to learn from them and do the same.

    Chabad schools have been set up in many places where no tuition was charged at all and this was based on the clear directives of the previous Rebbe and the Rebbe.

    On occasion, the secretariat of the Rebbe wrote to the school about a rumor they heard that students have been turned back because the parents can’t afford to pay tuition. The thrust of the letter was how can we allow in good conscience that students will hang out in the streets based on financial considerations.

    Schools need to take into account the devastating effects that non-schooling can have on the children. The story is related that the Chofetz Chayim refused to talk to a school principal because of his policy not to accept students whose parents aren’t paying tuition. The Chofetz Chayim explained that Trotsky was one such student who came from a low socioeconomic background and was refused entry into a Jewish Torah school — and because of that he turned out the way he did.

    To quote the Rebbe: All Jewish children must receive a kosher education and they do not belong in a public school in no way shape or form (Igros Kodesh XXXII: 364. In the original Hebrew: their place is  not in public school, totally and totally not). The potential harm to the general wellbeing of a religious child, in both mental as well as emotional health, and obviously spiritual wellbeing, from attending public school or not attending any school cannot be overstated.

    Refusing a child an education isn’t just a matter of Dinei Mamonos (a financial issue); it becomes an issue of Dinei Nefashos (matters of life and the opposite of life), at least in a spiritual sense. As the Rebbe writes in the above-mentioned letter (in English): “those in charge of admission to a Yeshiva or similar institution (they) should bear in mind that Torah study is a matter of life for a Jewish boy and girl and should seek every possible means to make it available to each and every Jewish boy and girl.”

     

    C. The Bottom Line

    Although all these issues are true, schools are often faced in a difficult position where they need to make a bottom line decision and want to know what is their actual halachic obligation where they don’t have the financial means to continue this way. If schools keep on absorbing these costs without insisting that “no education without taxation”, more parents will likely begin to abuse the system too and avoid paying their required fees. This is a self-destructive system which can quickly spiral out of control.

    On the other hand, we all know that children should never be used as hostage or bargaining chips to ensure that parents follow through with their responsibilities. Punishing a child for their parents behavior is unethical and counter-educational.

    The answer to this question requires some history.  The institution of Jewish day school goes back to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla, the High Priest, who lived over two thousand years ago, and many state it started even earlier. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla instituted, and this forms now part of Jewish law, that every member of the Jewish community must participate in paying towards the local Jewish day school. However, this rule does not extend itself to girls, boys over the age of thirteen or to food and transportation. (At the same time, many contemporary authorities have pointed out that in today’s day and age the obligation to provide a Torah education for girls is just as important as boys; the purpose of Torah education nowadays isn’t merely to provide them with knowledge and skills but rather to inculcate with them true Torah values and ensure they stay on the right path. The same can be said about boys are over the age of 13.)

    Thus, in accordance with the institution of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla, the community must absorb the cost for the tuition of those children whose parents cannot afford to pay. Indeed, in many communities of yesteryear, a special fund was set up by the community to ensure that all children receive a proper Torah education. Many authorities argue that the local school represents the community in this regard, and carries the same responsibilities.

    Moreover, it can be argued that even if parents can afford the required tuition but are not paying it, the child should be deemed no different than an orphaned child and the community must still absorb the costs for this child. In the setup we have today, the local community school assumes this responsibility with assistance from the community.

    Of course, there’s no blanket rule that applies to all situations. A number of issues need to be considered: do the parents not have the funds or are they just not interested in paying for tuition? Are they paying any tuition or not at all? Is this a community school (a community school can be either a school for all the individual subsets of the larger community in this locale or a school designated for a specific Kehilla), or a private school? Are there other schools in the area where the child can go to? Can the child be homeschooled? If the child will be refused entry to the school will the other schools accept him or her? Is the child over thirteen years of age? What is the likely effect on the child if he’s refused an education?

    There are no simple answers to some of these questions.

    So what should the school do? At times parents can be encouraged to assist with fundraising efforts. But sometimes this isn’t a viable option either.

    Some Poskim are of the opinion that a school may never halachically refuse an education to a student on account of not receiving school fees. Others have taken a more lenient position on the matter, stating that even there is a chance that it will have a negative effect on the child they cannot be forced halachically to provide an education where payment didn’t come through, although they should seriously consider the consequences of their decision. If the school considers the potential consequences they would most likely seek other alternatives.

    I am not aware of the Rebbe taking a halachic position on the matter, although he did clearly push schools to accept students regardless. The Rebbe was also a strong critic of teachers striking when not being paid, and he lamented the total destruction this causes to the weltanschauung of the students and how counter-educational this is. The Rebbe alluded to the fact that there are also halachic considerations at play. The underlying issues involving teachers striking is not totally dissimilar to our issue at hand: sending students home when tuition wasn’t paid up. However, the halachic issues are very different.

    We find one other reference from the Rebbe about this matter (though there is no indication there about an Halachic obligation one way or another). From the incident in the Gemara (Yoma ibid.) where Hillel was refused entry to the Beis Hamidrash because he couldn’t come up with the tuition fees and then endangered his life to listen to the shiur, the Rebbe deduces (in the above-mentioned English letter) that “even if there may be a doubt that a particular applicant might be trying to evade paying for tuition, no child should be turned away; nor should any applicant be made to feel embarrassed in any case of hardship. Unfortunately, these principles have not always been fully observed in admissions to some Day Schools and Torah  institutions in the present time.” (It should be noted that at times there can be also an issue of violating the transgression of not pressuring a debtor where he doesn’t have the means to pay his debts. It is true that tuition fees are not considered loans in the typical sense but at times they may receive this halachic status. This is beyond the scope of this article. For more about the issue of not exerting pressure on debtors, see here)

    At the same time, in defense of the doorkeeper, the Rebbe states (earlier in the very same letter): “insofar as the doorkeeper is concerned – Hillel had been paying the admission fee daily, prior to the incident. Undoubtedly, the doorkeeper did not know that Hillel was paying for it with half of his daily earnings, for true to his character, Hillel would surely not have boasted about it. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that Hillel was well able to pay for his admission, but for some reason did not want to pay it on that particular day.” On the one hand, the lesson from the story is that “even if there may be a doubt that a particular applicant might be trying to evade paying for tuition, no child should be turned away”. However, it’s plausible – though this can be challenged – that in the case where it’s certain that the parents are evading tuition it is within the right of the school to enforce their acceptance policy based on tuition. (Of course, on a practical level, it’s extremely difficult to be totally sure about such matters, especially taking into account that we’re dealing with issues of Dinei Nefashos, where nothing but absolute certitude qualifies ).

    Moreover, the Rebbe wrote to a school (Igros Kodesh XV: 298) that they may “take the appropriate means” to deal with recalcitrant parents who are capable of paying and don’t wish to pay. (I have no direct knowledge of what the Rebbe means when he uses the term “appropriate means”). The Rebbe noted that he is hopeful that if parents who have the means of paying and don’t pay are warned that their names will be made public this in itself will help without resorting to other means.

    In practice: schools must weigh all the options seriously before making such a decision. Certainly, the school can make such a threat to the parents if they are of the belief and knowledge that the parents are capable of coming up with the funds. Only when all other options have been exhausted, can such a thought be considered. It’s recommended that the school form a committee which consists of a representative of the parents, the board and a community member to decide on this issue. The director can only act on this when the committee gives its approval.

    However, what really is supposed to happen is that a tuition fund must be set up “by the community for the community” to assist in this matter and ensure that every Jewish child in the community is educated without exception. The fund managers can also assist in collection of outstanding fees. This will enable easier collection of tuition since the directors of this fund would be responsible for tuition across all schools in the community. The recipients would feel more indebted to the fund managers, since it’s not just a matter of dealing with an individual school. There are many more advantages to such a system.

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