[Editor’s Note: This post is the final of four that look at alternate funding models and approaches for Christian schools. The purpose of this series is to encourage dialogue, both within the Christian school movement and at individual schools, about the sustainability challenges facing much of the sector. While some of the ideas presented by the authors in this series may run contrary to “traditional” practice in Christian education, the purpose again is not to provide recommendations or guidance, but rather to spark thinking and discussion along these lines. We encourage readers to submit comments below the post to begin the dialogue and share ideas.]
I serve an urban, multicultural Christian school system that leaders both within and outside of our movement have deemed a “public Christian school.” We’ve reluctantly embraced that identity over the years, especially as our funding has steadily nudged toward 90 percent from public sources. Yes, that’s unusual for a Christian school, and if your first question is, “How do you do that and maintain your Christian identity?” then you’ve hit the nail on the head. What we’re doing isn’t easy.
The relationship status between Christian schools and the public does not have a neat and tidy history, and the future of our relationship is uncertain. As the school choice movement appears to be picking up steam nationally, with Illinois’ voucher initiative serving as a recent example, it is a ripe moment for leaders in the Christian schooling movement to formulate and articulate a coherent position on why and how Christian schools serve the general public. We need to come to grips with the reality that Christian schools have, historically, been islands of privilege. Because our schools are built on a private-paying tuition paradigm, and even with schools providing need-based financial assistance, the “tuition barrier” automatically eliminates thousands (millions, more likely) of children and families who would otherwise choose a Christian school if they could. Domestically, this strategy does not seem to be working for us, as many Christian schools face sustainability challenges, even as schools in the developing world continue to outpace our decline with growth. Now is an opportune time for us to reflect on our funding models, as well as how those models might better enable us to fulfill our unique missions.
Challenge Presents Opportunity.
Swaner and Mecham (2017) note Barna’s two “macro-trends” leading to the “reverse trend of schools closing in the United States”: the “changing faith profile of parents” and the “proliferation of school options” (6). In particular, they contend that “the overall number of parents who would consider Christian schooling is currently on the decline, and those who are left are savvy consumers with many viable education options, and who require evidence of the return on investment (ROI) of Christian education” (6). I would like to challenge this assumption from experience. In the new era of school choice, vast markets of ready and willing customers hitherto untouched by Christian schooling are opening to us. These customers are often faithful Christian families who, until now, have never been able to afford a Christian school experience for their children. But, they might not fit the profile of the typical Christian school customer. The question before Christian school leaders, then, is whether or not we are ready and willing to serve them.
The Kingdom Economy Works Backward.
We serve a “Looking Glass” God. In the Kingdom economy, strange (to us) forces are at work where the last are first, the first last, the weak strong, the strong weak, the foolish wise, and the wise foolish. In the case of those of us in Christian education, I can’t help but wonder if we’re not quite following Kingdom principles. Jesus admonishes in Luke 14:12-14 (CEB):
“When you host a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, or rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you in return and that will be your reward. Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.”
Do we have enough courage to ask whether Christian schools can serve the public, and not just a privileged few—or is it just too complicated? I serve a network of Christian schools in a city with one of the highest concentrations of children living in poverty per capita in the United States. Our public school district is the worst ranked district in the state. But our Christian school system has more than doubled in size over the past seven years. Our population of students with special needs has increased by 850 percent and we serve upwards of 80 percent of students who meet federal poverty guidelines. More than 90 percent of our budget is funded with public dollars. We are, for all intents and purposes, a “public Christian school” system.
We are not alone. There are a handful of Christian schools like ours who have quietly, and with much sacrifice, become public Christian schools as well. But, despite our growth, we are not even scratching the surface of our own geographic reach, serving less than 5 percent of the students in our surrounding communities. What if the time has come for more Christian schools to serve the desperate needs of the general public, and the rapid expansion of school choice programs nationwide makes it possible? I contend, as Swaner and Mecham (2017) remind us, that “faithful presence” is entirely possible in such a paradigm of Christian schooling (8).
Some Questions to Consider.
If the tuition barrier were broken, would we maintain an “it’s complicated” relationship status with the general public, or would we serve the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind? Or would we consider changing our status with the public from “it’s complicated” to “in a relationship”? Although they bear deep implications for our schools’ missions, policies, and practices, the time is ripe to have generative conversations around these questions.
Swaner, L., and J. Mecham. 2017. “What is the Future of Christian School Education?” Christian School Education 21 (1):6-8.
About the Author
Dr. Joshua Reichard is the Vice President and Assistant Superintendent of Valley Christian Schools, a multicultural, urban, K-12 Christian school system with more than 700 students. Joshua earned a PhD in Human and Social Studies (Religion and Theology) from the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, a DPhil in Religion and Society Studies from Oxford Graduate School, and an Ed.S. in Educational Leadership from Liberty University. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read the complete series:
Part 1: Can You Outsource Your School Operations? by Philip Scott.
Part 3: Getting Unstuck, by Jake Becker.