When President Obama extolled the virtues of early childhood education in his recent State of the Union address, he voiced sentiments that any parent with a child in preschool would echo: how important it is to expose children to active learning, positive reinforcement and socialization at a young age. “But today,” the president said, “fewer than three in 10 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, the lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.”
The president is to be applauded for raising this issue on what is arguably his biggest bully pulpit of the year, and then following up with visits to states where a commitment to public education before kindergarten is already showing results. As Gail Collins pointed out in a brilliant New York Times column, this is hardly a novel idea. In fact, a bipartisan Congress passed legislation back in 1971 guaranteeing every American child a quality preschool education, with tuition depending on the family’s ability to pay.
Then Richard Nixon vetoed it. Not the worst thing he did as president, of course, but high on the list.
Now, 42 years later, the congressional resistance to guaranteeing the poor and middle class anything that only the rich can afford is more intractable, even though research points to clear advantages in creating an education system that begins at an early age. While the nation debates how to fulfill Obama’s audacious but achievable goal of enrolling every 4-year-old in school, there is a parallel challenge within the Jewish community: How to make Jewish early childhood education excellent and affordable?
This, too, is not a novel idea. Quality Jewish preschool not only can build a healthy foundation for lifelong Jewish learning, it helps bring young Jewish families into the fold, creating friendships and shared experiences that, in turn, create community. If every 4-year-old in America should be guaranteed a quality education, why can’t every Jewish 4-year-old be guaranteed a quality Jewish education?
But have you seen how much it costs? That’s actually not an easy question to answer. The Forward called more than a dozen Jewish preschools in New York City, inquiring about annual tuition costs, and barely received a civil reply, perhaps because the numbers might strike ordinary parents as fantastical. We were able to find out that a couple of schools charge around $15,000 a year just for a three-and-a-half hour morning class. A full day can cost as much as $22,000 — and that doesn’t include extra charges for lunch, security guards and yoga. (Got to have yoga.)
A spot check of schools in Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles found that tuition ranged from $8,000 to nearly $14,000, not including summer classes. Sometimes schools housed in synagogues include membership in those fees; othertimes, membership is required.