Eric Cohen’s insightful essay envisions profound changes in Jewish education in America, built on the possibilities afforded by relatively new technologies that have been made ubiquitous by the coronavirus pandemic. Yet Cohen is likewise sensitive to the trade-offs of virtual learning, which cannot truly replace the bond that students form with their teachers and each other in physical settings. As he observed, “real community is not virtual.” And yet, when used to supplement rather than replace in-person instruction, virtual learning has great potential to expand access to high-quality Jewish education.
The changes that Cohen envisions are necessary because of the numerous constraints Jewish education faced even before COVID-19. The high cost of private education—especially for Jews with large families living in expensive areas like New York and Los Angeles—imposes burdensome costs on the community that go beyond the annual tuition fees. As Rabbi Aryeh Klapper has detailed, these include parents spending more time at work and less time with their children, the transformation of families into net-recipients of charity instead of net-contributors, and families opting to have fewer children. For many families, particularly but not exclusively among the non-Orthodox, these costs are too high; instead they opt to send their children to a secular school rather than provide them with an immersive Jewish education.
Geography is another constraint. As Cohen described, so-called “out-of-town” Jewish communities often lack access to a sufficient number of high-quality teachers who can also serve as living examples of how observant Jews should live and behave. Many communities lack even a sufficient number of students to make a Jewish school sustainable.
Cohen imagines several ways in which the Jewish schools of the future could utilize virtual platforms, creatively reconfigure school schedules, and form new partnerships within and outside of the Jewish community to overcome these constraints—simultaneously lowering costs and increasing access to a richer and more rigorous education.
Cohen’s vision is compelling. If recent developments in education policy and practice are any guide, it’s now more attainable than at any time in recent memory.
COVID-19 forced most Jewish day schools to utilize online platforms to continue teaching their students this spring, but even before the pandemic, Jewish virtual learning was on the rise. One of the pioneers in synchronous online learning have been Chabad-Lubavitch Ḥasidim, whose emissaries often live in far-flung locales with small Jewish communities that cannot support a yeshiva or day school. For these emissaries, who often have young children, secular schools are out of the question. In the past this meant homeschooling for younger children, and boarding school or living with extended-family members for older ones. But since 2006, thousands of Chabad children from hundreds of cities in more than 70 countries have been studying together via the Nigri International Shluchim Online School. During the pandemic, this school expanded its offerings dramatically, opening an Online Hebrew Academy catering not only to children of Chabad families, but Jewish children of all backgrounds.
Nor are these programs entirely unique. In recent years, supplementary and full-time online Jewish-studies offerings, such as Melamed Academy and Lookstein Virtual, have proliferated. Prizmah, the Center for Jewish Day Schools, lists more than a dozen organizations and programs offering some kind of virtual learning, opening up new potential to deliver high-quality instruction that is also affordable. Melamed Academy’s full-time Torah and General Studies program is only $2,500 per year and offers family discounts. Another institution, Jewish Interactive, even offers a plethora of webinars and interactive virtual-learning activities for free.
Brick-and-mortar Jewish schools have also begun to incorporate online courses into their programming—a practice called “blended learning.” For example, in 2009, Yeshivas Ohev Shalom in Los Angeles partnered with the secular Kaplan Academy to provide online general-studies programming as a part of their effort to keep their tuition affordable. A few years later, Yeshivat He’Atid in Bergen County, New Jersey followed suit, allowing it to charge tuition that’s 40-percent lower than other nearby Jewish day schools. In the past five years, scores of day schools across the country have adopted blended learning as well.
The day-school system still has a long way to go before it quite resembles Cohen’s vision, but the openness among so many Orthodox schools to incorporating online learning shows that his vision could become reality.
Perhaps the most fascinating educational development during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the rise of “microschools” and “pandemic pods”—small clusters of families that collaborate to educate their children, usually in groups of about five to fifteen. Although there are no universally agreed-upon definitions of these terms, microschools tend to be more formally structured and are often a part of a network, whereas pods tend to be independent and parent-led. Frequently the parents will hire an instructor, but sometimes one or more parents will educate the children personally. The microschools and pods also often leverage virtual learning opportunities.
Parents face tough decisions about their children’s education this fall. EdChoice’s July tracking poll found that more than 80 percent of parents were concerned about their child being exposed to coronavirus at school. At the same time, parents have serious concerns about virtual learning. About half of parents report that their children were more stressed during the COVID-19 school shutdowns and about seven in ten worried about their children feeling socially isolated. Additionally, nearly 70 percent of parents are concerned about their children falling behind academically—and with good reason. Researchers found that “students are likely to return in fall 2020 with approximately 63-68 percent of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year and with 37-50 percent of the learning gains in math.”
Children learning at home also interfered with parents’ ability to work. According to the aforementioned July survey, nearly two-thirds expressed concern about missing work if their child’s school was closed. Parents with jobs outside the home during school hours would have to find ways to make childcare arrangements, while many of those working from home found it challenging to fulfill their professional responsibilities and simultaneously manage their child’s virtual learning.
Microschooling and “podding” seemed designed to meet the needs of families during the pandemic, providing in-person instruction and socialization with peers while minimizing the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. In a matter of weeks this summer, the “Pandemic Pods – Main” Facebook group grew to about 40,000 members and spawned dozens of local chapters and imitators. In Arizona, the Prenda microschool network more than tripled in size during the school shutdowns, growing to more than 3,000 students.
Microschooling was already on the rise even before the pandemic. Prenda, for example, had already grown from just seven students in one microschool in January of 2018 to about 1,000 students in some 100 microschools even before the 2020 school shutdowns. To parents who seek an education tailored to their children’s specific learning needs, microschooling appeals because it does away with larger classes that leave some students bored because they grasp materially more rapidly than their peers and others struggling to keep up. Smaller classes allow each child to progress at his or her own pace. Because microschools don’t require large, expensive buildings, it’s also easier to keep costs down and to scale up.
Microschooling may seem like an awkward fit for Jews, particularly for the Orthodox, due to their highly communal approach to education. Yeshivas are the beating heart of the Orthodox communities and are unlikely to be replaced by microschools in more established communities. Nevertheless, microschool networks like Torahverse may see growth in smaller Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities or even provide a haven for Jewish families who are priced out of the day schools in larger communities. The non-denominational SchoolHouse microschool network even includes a few Jewish schools as well as some Catholic ones.
Critics of microschooling fear they will “exacerbate inequities.” Fairfax County Public School officials even cajoled parents considering microschooling:
While FCPS doesn’t and can’t control these private-tutoring groups, we do have concerns that they may widen the gap in educational access and equity for all students. Many parents cannot afford private instruction. Many working families can’t provide transportation to and from a tutoring pod, even if they could afford to pay for the service.
In other words, they argue that parents should forgo providing their children with the best education possible in these trying circumstances so as not to get too far ahead of other children. Setting aside that this approach treats education primarily as a private benefit in a zero-sum game, disadvantaged children would be better served by policies that lift them up rather than trying to hold back other children.
Those concerned about the equity of microschooling or utilizing other private options should consider policies that allow the money to follow the child, like vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts (ESAs). In Fairfax County, district schools spend just north of the national average of about $15,000 per pupil. In New York City and Washington, DC, district schools spend on each and every child about $29,000 and $31,000 respectively. If parents could access even half of those funds to spend on their child’s education, it would greatly alleviate equity concerns.
Such measures would also address the inequity of forcing Orthodox Jews and others who are not well-served by district schools to pay for two separate systems of education: one that they use and pay for out of pocket, and another that they can’t use but fund by paying taxes. Their children are equally deserving of public funds that are intended to educate all children.
Although California, New York, and New Jersey are a long way away from enacting educational-choice policies, a considerable number of Jews already live in three states with robust choice programs: Arizona, Florida, and Ohio. In all three, communal leaders attribute at least part of their recent Jewish population growth to the presence of these programs.
About three percent of Ohio students participate in one of the state’s five school voucher programs. Tens of thousands of students each year receive vouchers worth $4,650 for K-8 tuition and $6,000 for high school. The second- and fifth-largest voucher recipients in the state are Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva Derech Hatorah in Cleveland Heights.
Arizona has the most robust educational-choice environment in the country, with nearly six percent of students participating in the state’s four tax-credit scholarship programs—one of which is open to every child, regardless of income—or the state’s trailblazing education savings account (ESA) program. Whereas vouchers can only be used to pay tuition, ESAs can also be used for tutoring, textbooks, online courses, homeschooling curricula, educational therapy, and more. Unused funds rollover from year to year so families can save for future expenses, including college. ESAs are funded with 90 percent of the state’s portion of per-pupil funding and can be significantly higher for students with special needs. Currently, eligibility for the ESAs is limited to students with special needs, students assigned to a D- or F-rated district school, Native Americans on reservations, children in foster care, or the children of active-duty military personnel or those killed in the line of duty.
Florida has a higher portion of its students using its school-choice program than any other state besides Arizona, and the highest absolute number of students using such a program nationwide. The state’s main program, the tax-credit scholarship, provides up to $9,200 to more than 100,000 low-income students annually. Florida also has an ESA program for students with special needs. Recently, Florida policymakers enacted a new voucher program to reach even more students from low- and middle-income families. Because so many families benefit from these programs and their continued growth is codified in statute, Florida’s choice programs are among the most politically sustainable.
Of the three private educational-choice policies described above, ESAs are by far the most versatile and therefore the most useful to entrepreneurs sketching out new models of delivering education. The fourth option is charter schools. However, since the law currently requires charter schools to be secular, they are less well suited to Jewish educational needs than the programs outlined above.
When I read Eric Cohen’s essay on the Jewish schools of the future, it brought to mind a turning point in Jewish education in the past. During a period of great disruption—following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the loss of Jewish sovereignty in Judea—the Sanhedrin took the extreme step of deposing its leader, Rabban Gamliel, for his heavy-handed treatment toward dissenting sages. In his stead, the Talmud records, they appointed a young prodigy, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, who immediately abolished his predecessor’s policy of selective admittance to the study hall:
It was taught: On that day, they dismissed the guard at the door [of the study hall] and permission was granted to [all] the students to enter. [Previously] Rabban Gamliel would proclaim: “Any student whose inside is not like his outside will not enter the study hall.” On that day [that Rabban Gamliel’s selective approach was abolished], many benches were added. Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Abba Yosef ben Dostai and the rabbis disagreed [about how many were added]. One said: 400 benches were added and one said 700 benches were added. . . . There was not a single law whose ruling was pending in the study hall that they did not resolve.
The shift in policy entailed a tradeoff—admitting students with somewhat less than sterling character—that carried great risks. It also produced great rewards. The massive influx of students brought new and creative insights into the study hall that sharpened the debates and contributed to the resolution of numerous conundrums in Jewish law. Ultimately, even Rabban Gamliel conceded that the new approach was superior, and he maintained the more inclusive policy even after he was restored as head of the Sanhedrin.
The episode contains many lessons for our current situation. As the sages recognized, great disruptions are opportunities to reassess and rethink existing institutions and practices. Too often, inertia blinds us to potential solutions to that are already within our grasp.
The episode also underscores Judaism’s general preference for wider access to education. The Talmud does not dismiss Rabban Gamliel’s concerns about the worthiness of students, but rather demonstrates how the benefits of wider access to Jewish learning outweigh the costs. Faced with today’s disruptions and traumas, we should seize the opportunities for an expansion of Jewish education at least as ambitious as that proposed by Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah.