On Aug. 1, day school advocates in East Windsor launched the Endowment Fund for School Choice, whose goal is to provide every Jewish day school student with a $10,000 per year voucher. That’s right, every student — which explains why their stated goal is no less than $40 billion.
Fund president Aaron Sears, who lives in East Windsor, told NJJN, “We want to make day schools affordable for every parent who wants to send their child to Jewish day school.”
Although the group is starting off with a focus on New Jersey, the vouchers issued would apply to day school students across the United States.
Sears noted the financial burden on parents who send their children to day school but must also support public schools through their taxes. “It is a 20th-century concept for parents to have to pay 100 percent of their children’s education; in prewar Europe, Jewish day school was always a communal responsibility,” he said.
The idea for the endowment fund grew out of a conversation in 2003 among parents at Congregation Toras Emes in East Windsor in response to an op-ed in The Jewish Press — a weekly based in Brooklyn — about the need to support Jewish day schools.
The fund organizers, said Sears, “are finally doing it now because the need is so great — and no one else is doing this.”
The endowment fund will operate like a scholarship fund with minimal staff, with the vast majority of funds raised and dividends received either put in the fund or used for vouchers. Currently the fund is run by about eight volunteers, said Sears.
The vouchers will not be based on financial need, and once a school is selected, every eligible student will receive a voucher.
In a statement, fund vice president Warren Hyman of East Windsor said that the fund defines a day school as one that “educates students of the Jewish faith, in K to 12th grade, in a program which includes Jewish-specific areas of study and which has a student body which is overwhelmingly Jewish.”
Schools may offer either in-class or distance learning to both mainstream and special education students. According to the website, this would avoid a “costly and cumbersome screening process when nearly all families of yeshiva students are hurting and in need of financial aid.”
The vouchers will also enable yeshivas to pay their faculty a livable wage, while being able to accept students whose families don’t have the financial means to pay tuition, said Sears.
Although most of the fund’s leadership is Orthodox, the endowment will cover Jewish day schools across the spectrum. Noting the recent closure of non-Orthodox schools — like the Conservative Solomon Schechter Day School of the Raritan Valley in East Brunswick — Sears said that one of the reasons the fund is covering Reform and Conservative schools is that “those parents are more price sensitive and don’t see the need for Jewish day school” as strongly as Orthodox parents do.
With a website, bylaws, and a 501(c)(3) status in place, the fund plans to market itself through social media and press releases. Sears said they are also reaching out to Jewish philanthropists. The idea is to start in New Jersey and then expand to New York, and eventually the entire country — but Sears said he realizes it will take a while.
A certified public accountant who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sears retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel and did combat tours in Bosnia and Iraq. He is the father of three sons, all educated in day schools. He is also a grandfather.
Sears said he envisions the Endowment Fund for School Choice as an address where Jewish funders can support Jewish day schools, along with social justice and other educational venues. “Our goal is to create some competition for philanthropy,” Sears said. “I have to believe if we put this idea out there, we’re going to get some reception.”