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With the launch of a new school year and this issue’s special section devoted to our interest as Christians in the task of education, I’d been gathering data from here and there with a distinctly gloomy and dismal tone. If the 1980s and even the 1990s were what some folks called the “glory years” for Christian schools, is it also painfully true that the first two decades of this century have tended more and more toward just the opposite.
Back in the ’80s, for example, it was common to hear the claim that a new Christian school was being started every day somewhere in the world. But earlier this summer, I heard a seasoned Christian leader worry that the doors of a Christian school somewhere were now being locked every day—or, in some cases, marginal schools were being merged to keep the cause alive.
The reasons were many, but I kept hearing about two or three issues in particular. Good education tends to be a costly endeavor. Many schools that for a generation had operated on shoestrings decided over the last decade or two to get serious about their task. Accreditation, either by the state or by professional agencies, became an important goal for many schools that in earlier years had pretty much ignored such standards. Along the way, such schools grappled with their obligation to pay teachers something closer to a competitive living wage. No longer could the boards of such schools ignore the reality that teachers, with their modestly minimal salaries, were in fact the schools’ largest donors—typically contributing $5,000 to $20,000 annually, per teacher, in salaries forgone.
Back in the ’80s it was common to hear the claim that a new Christian school was being started every day somewhere in the world.
Reluctantly, schools began hiking tuition—but that was a process that left committed parents (especially those in the middle class) in a financially disadvantaged situation. Grateful for the high-quality education they’d been provided, many Christian families still faced the college years with the stark reality of almost empty checkbooks and educational savings accounts.
And all this was happening in the context of yet another competitive factor. Christian families by the tens of thousands were increasingly saying no to institutional Christian schools and yes to the significantly less costly attractions of homeschooling. To make that observation is in no sense to minimize the totally valid philosophical and educational arguments such families also adopted to justify their choice. But the cumulative drop in enrollment at Christian schools that until then had enjoyed something of a monopoly for families wanting Christian teachers was profound. Accurate statistics are tricky to come by, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that homeschooling today has cost traditional schools something like a third of the student market they’d held in earlier years.
All of which sent me scurrying last week to confirm all this bad news. As supportive of Christian education as WORLD has been through the years, we’re not about to serve as blindfolded cheerleaders for a troubled cause. If the Christian school movement includes some operations that are soon to be boarded up, our readers should know the facts.
I turned to the most trustworthy source I knew. “If you keep your focus and filter only on the U.S.,” responded Dan Egeler, energetic head of the Association for Christian Schools International, “you might have a few appropriate concerns.” With some 3,100 U.S. member schools, ACSI is the world’s leading organization of Protestant Christian schools.
From that perspective, Egeler downplayed (but not dismissively) the adjustments being felt by some American Christian schools. Much more significant, he stressed, is the incredible growth of Christian schools in other parts of the world. “In Asia, Africa, and Latin America, our organization alone now assists in the work of 24,000 member schools.” And most of those schools, he asserted, “are already learning to be self-supporting. When they come to ACSI for assistance, it’s not money they’re looking for, but expertise.”
I was cheered by Dan Egeler’s take on things. Once we get into the school year, I expect to go back and ask him to help us understand what the best things are that we in America can do to help some of those needy schools.