Dozens of anonymous Jewish parents are collaborating in a subversive act of citizen journalism that’s bringing a burst of transparency to the murky realm of day school tuition.
Over Labor Day weekend, the anonymous collaborators built a massive Google spreadsheet listing tuitions for hundreds of Jewish elementary schools, highs schools and yeshivas in the United States and Israel.
“I don’t think there’s another composite of information like this anywhere,” said Aaron Simkovich, a Chicago-area father whose children attend Arie Crown Hebrew Day School. “It’s part of people’s decisions about where they want to move, but it’s hard to do really good research on that.”
The school fees range from Manhattan’s pluralistic Abraham Joshua Heschel School, which charges $40,900 for first grade, down to a handful of ultra-Orthodox day schools with reported costs of $5,000 and below.
After just a few days, the crowds-sourced collaboration found an audience. On Tuesday morning, more than 70 people were viewing the document at any one time.
Tuition costs range widely among private religious schools, and schools rarely advertise their pricing. While families may decide their financial priorities based on the affordability of day schools, comparative tuition rates can be hard to come by, and comparison-shopping is made difficult by the lack of transparency.
Newton, Massachusetts parent James Wolfe created the spreadsheet on Friday after spending weeks wondering why Maimonides School, the Brookline Jewish day school where he sends his two children, had not yet started its classes.
“I was watching on Facebook all of my friends, they were posting first day of school pictures,” Wolfe said. Puzzled as to why his children seemed to be receiving less education hours despite the hefty fees he pays, he created a public Google spreadsheet comparing the tuition and the number of school days of five Jewish day schools around the country. One of the schools didn’t post its tuition online, so Wolfe called the school Friday and asked a receptionist.
The Jewish day school organization Prizmah, formed this year as a combination of a bevy of other groups, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some day school parents, meanwhile, spent the long weekend combing the document.
“There isn’t a lot of information out there, and it’s interesting to compare what your kids’ schools are versus comparable schools,” said Meir Lewittes, a Queens, New York parent whose children attend Jewish day schools in Far Rockaway. Lewittes said that he had been sent the list on the social messaging tool WhatsApp. “It’s certainly been making the rounds,” he said.
Since Friday, when Wolfe posted his spreadsheet on Facebook, users have shared it nearly 200 times. An unknown number of people have added hundreds of schools to the document.
“For whatever reason, I wasn’t the only one who wanted to know this information,” Wolfe said.
Few others have helped Wolfe answer his original question by adding information about the number of days each school is in session. But tuition information is now available through the spreadsheet for nearly three hundred institutions.
The spreadsheet, which carries the unwieldy title “ANYONE CAN EDIT - US/Israel Jewish Day School Costs - Please include all mandatory annual fees as part of the price,” is an imperfect tool. Anyone can edit any field at any time, which means that it’s vulnerable to sloppy research, vandalism, and even deliberate misinformation.
Still, the spreadsheet is drawing plaudits from parents thirsty for information. “I love this private effort because I believe in transparency,” wrote one Facebook user. “If you want to know why Modern Orthodoxy in the US is not affordable except for the wealthy, see here.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter, @joshnathankazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.