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With this kind of daunting price tag, it’s no wonder that many parents opt for less expensive, secular alternatives. A recent survey in the San Francisco Bay area showed that only about one-third of the Jewish children in that community attend a Jewish preschool.
The population study conducted by UJA-Federation of New York and released earlier this year found only slightly higher numbers: Of children through age 4 in the eight-county New York metropolitan area, about 38% are in Jewish preschool or day care. And that percentage is skewed by the large Orthodox population in this area, most of whom opt for the Jewish alternative.
If cost is an issue, there are, fortunately, creative initiatives to address this problem. In Chicago, the Jewish United Fund has established a gift voucher — which it says is the first of its kind in the nation — that will offset the cost of Jewish preschool or day care for the first child in the family. The tuition reimbursement is not based on need; rather, it depends on how many days a child is in school. Two days a week, the voucher amounts to $500. Five days a week, $2,000. There are options in between, a clever way to cater to a family’s choice.
Another model seeks to incentivize families to think of preschool as a stepping stone to day school. The San Diego Jewish Academy has a tuition loyalty plan that promises a 25% tuition discount in day school for every year a child attends its preschool.
Besides affordability, the other goal here is excellence. Mounds of research point to how essential strong teaching is to the success of the early education experience. To that end, it’s a welcome sign that the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion — a Conservative and Reform seminary, respectively — are teaming up to offer a post-graduate course of study designed to enhance teacher quality.
All these efforts can only succeed with parental support, and that seems to differ widely among the denominations. As the New York federation population survey found: “More than 9 in 10 Orthodox families have sent their children to a Jewish preschool, as compared with nearly three-quarters of Conservative families, half of Reform families, and a quarter of nondenominational families. The in-married are almost four times as likely as the intermarried to send their children to Jewish preschools.” Are the Orthodox schools less expensive? How can the non-Orthodox schools become more attractive?
Affordable, high-quality early childhood Jewish education brings enormous long-term value to our families and our community. Just as universal education for 4-year-olds is now a national goal, so should its counterpart be a communal goal. But it will be up to all the stakeholders — funders, educators and parents alike — to make it happen.