EDITORIAL: On Jews, schools, and money

EDITORIAL: On Jews, schools, and money

A Melbourne Jewish school is suing the parents of three children for unpaid fees. The bigger story is the need to rebuild the Jewish education economy.

Few subjects are touchier than Jews and money. Throw in education, and you have a deep source of tension.

On Sunday, The Age reported that Leibler Yavneh College, a Melbourne Jewish school, has filed court action against the parents of three children at the school who are alleged to owe $300,000 in fees not been paid since 2019.

The Yavneh case, including a picture of the school, headed a broader article about debt recovery for private schools. Much lower down, The Age reported that Ruyton Girls School, a non-denominational private school, is suing a father for $31,474.53 of unpaid school fees. It quoted a debt collection agency with 250 active accounts for unpaid fees to Victorian private schools, totalling about $3 million in debt.

Another Age story earlier this year reported schools including De La Salle College, Scotch College and Wesley College had used bankruptcy proceedings against families for unpaid fees.

The justification for the focus on Yavneh in this week’s story was the large and long-standing debt of $300,000, a figure the debt collector described as an extreme case.

On the surface, that makes the story about Yavneh fair on the news values: big numbers make big stories. But it remains an uncomfortable article which tells an incomplete story and in doing so gives an unfair impression of a Jewish organisation grubbing for money.

Those within the community who consider Jewish private schools the only possible choice, are not only privileged but ignorant of the lives of their fellow Jews.

That Yavneh is going to court to recover fees is the pointy end of a much bigger story: the failing Jewish education economy. The private education system that has long been the pride of the Australian Jewish community is becoming increasingly unaffordable.

All private schools are in an invidious position when it comes to debt collection. Most schools are non-profit, but they still need to make ends meet. Unlike other businesses, they can’t simply withdraw their services if they are not paid. No one wants to force children to leave school when their parents can’t or won’t pay.

Jewish schools are in an even tougher and more complex position. The community has long run the line that no child is denied a Jewish education because of lack of financial means.

All Jewish schools offer fee relief to significant sections of their school population. In some Melbourne Jewish schools, a third of students are on some kind of subsidy or deferred payment plan.

Few non-Jewish schools offer any equivalent relief to prospective students, although scholarships are available for exceptional students and compromises are sometimes negotiated for existing students in the case of changed circumstances.

Yavneh must have shown considerable tolerance to allow the debt to reach $300,000 — at least four years’ worth of completely unpaid fees for three children. 

It is arguable that Ruyton’s decision to take the extreme step of court action over a much smaller sum is more significant than Yavneh’s choice only to go to court after what was clearly an extended period of negotiation. 

The ubiquity of generous payment plans in the Jewish system and the culture of the schools as accessible to all means many parents are still paying fees long after their children have left school. It puts disproportionate pressure on other parents, who often make considerable sacrifices to pay full fees, and it requires schools to raise significant funds through donations. It also means schools feel pressed to collect fees when they believe families are able to pay.

Whatever the particularities of the case Yavneh is taking to court, the context is a Jewish education system that is struggling to service the students it has and cannot afford to support more non-paying students.

Across Victoria 15% of students attend independent schools and another 20% are in Catholic schools. Both systems have experienced growth over the past 10 years, although Catholic enrolments declined for the first time last year.

In the Jewish community, the proportion choosing Jewish private schools is much higher but the decline is much sharper: from 69 per cent in 2006 to 57 per cent a decade later – with most moving into the state sector. (More recent figures are unavailable.)

Financial pressure is clearly a significant part of this move. With costs increasing and the number of paying students decreasing, the community can simply not afford to provide private Jewish schooling to every child.

In any case, even generous fee relief would not mean every child can access a Jewish school. Household economics and human psychology are complicated. Jobs are lost, marriages end. Some children need parents with more availability, some need expensive therapies, some have grandparents overseas. Means testing can never take all the vicissitudes of life into account.

A very poor parent, without assets and with a clear finite income, can usually access generous support. Families with erratic incomes, personal issues such as conflict between divorced parents, and those who might scrape together fees with major lifestyle compromises find it much more difficult to get fee relief. Some parents are simply not prepared to go through the potential humiliating process of asking for help, a barrier which Melbourne’s pilot independent fee assessment board is attempting to address.

Financial motivations are only part of the reason that Jewish parents choose state schools. Some parents don’t want their children in economically, ethnically or religiously segregated schooling, some don’t live near Jewish schools, some find Jewish schools fail to meet the individual needs of their child.

Those within the community who consider Jewish private schools the only possible choice, are not only privileged but ignorant of the lives of their fellow Jews.

It’s time to stop saying, “No child is denied an education at a Jewish school for financial reasons” and ensure a range of Jewish educational opportunities is available.

Families who can’t afford fees and don’t qualify or choose to seek fee relief shouldn’t need to build up a debt. They should have access to good state school general education and good quality Jewish education outside school hours. That means more support for the United Jewish Education Board, Academy BJE and other non-school based providers.

Every Jewish child deserves a Jewish education. Private Jewish schooling must not be the only option.

Image: Plus61J Media