The Rebirth of Christian Schools

The Rebirth of Christian Schools October 11, 2023

Back in the 1980s when I took a job at Concordia University Wisconsin, we were looking at the parochial school run by our new congregation for our children.  The principal told us, “We offer the same kind of education as the public schools, but we also add religion.”

That sounded good to us at the time.  But I don’t think the principal of a Christian school would say that today.

As it happens, our children did get a solid education and good Christian instruction at that school.  But today the mainstream educational establishment is presiding over plummeting test scores in reading, writing, math, science, history, and just about every other academic subject.

Parents are also concerned about the moral climate in these schools, with many schools promoting the LGBTQ cause, using pornographic curriculum, and doing little to ensure the physical safety of children.  And they are scared to death of transgenderism, the prospect of schools making children “choose their pronouns,” thus introducing them to the possibility that they can change their gender.  And some schools will take it from there, subjecting children to “gender affirmation” treatments without even telling their parents.  As the Human Rights Campaign has decreed, “Educators should support students on their gender journey even if they do not have affirming family.”

As a result of these and other factors, enrollment in Christian schools is soaring.  But those schools first had to make some changes.

Vince Bielski has chronicled these changes in a piece for RealClearInvestigations entitled “After Years in the Wilderness, Conservative Christian Education Is Being Born Again Post-Pandemic.”  Not long ago, Christian schools were in decline.  But by focusing on higher academics–as in the rise of Classical Christian education–as well as other factors, Christian schools have come back.  Bielski writes:

The recent post-pandemic rebound in Christian education, prompted by parental anger over public school shutdowns and the expansion of school choice programs, comes after a prolonged period of plunging enrollment and shutdowns since the mid-2000s. Behind that decline were dismay over unaccredited schools and an emphasis on preaching the gospel over teaching rigorous courses, according to interviews with Christian school leaders, parents, and national associations, as well as religious education scholars and consultants.

They tell the story now of a Christian school movement with about 700,000 students in 8,000 schools that’s striving to leave behind its reclusive evangelical roots and reinvent itself for today, with STEM programs, AP classes, and classical “great books” curriculums.

Previously, though, Christian schools had lesser ambitions.  Regular Christian schools, concerned primarily with sheltering students and offering “good enough” academics, saw unprecedented enrollment loss.  In 2006, the Association of Christian Schools International  had about 4,000 member schools, but that number dropped to 2,094 by 2022.  Comments Bielski:

For Christian schools, which tend to enroll several hundred students, it was the biggest decline in their modern history. Nichols’ research shows that poor leadership, particularly by school boards, lackluster academics that didn’t meet the rising expectations of families for a rigorous education, and financial pressures from the Great Recession were major causes of the closures.

The main priority of these fundamentalist schools has been the cultivation of Christian morality and faith for the benefit of their communities. As for academics, they have practiced “good enough-ism,” or an education that’s good enough to get by in the real world, says Patrick Wolf, who studies private schools at the University of Arkansas.

But, Bielski says, the tide has turned since the COVID shutdowns, which disillusioned many parents both for the educational loss their children experienced and because in helping their children with online classes, they saw the radical progressivism that their children were being exposed to.  Another factor, Bielski says, is the availability of School Choice programs now available in some form in 40 states, which allow qualified parents to draw on state funds to cover tuition for public schools.

Most impressive is the new academic quality that many Christian schools are now offering.  I especially appreciated what Bielski said about the classical school movement, which which I am involved:

Hundreds of Christian schools are also adopting a demanding classical liberal arts program, a rapidly growing trend in private education that focuses on fundamental truths and virtue through the reading of great works of literature and philosophy. In Illinois at the K-12 Classical Consortium Academy, a Christian hybrid school, seventh graders read Dante’s “Inferno,” one of a long list of classics in the middle and high school curriculum that includes “The Republic,” Plutarch’s “Lives,” Augustine’s “Confessions,” “Don Quixote,” and “The Communist Manifesto.”

“The academic bar has been lowered so significantly that students think they can’t read these great works,” says Jennifer Burns, who founded the school and is helping launch seven more classical Christian academies nationwide for Turning Point Academy. “We offer rigor not to break their spirit but to show them they can handle it.”

I’m thinking that when Bielski is citing the 8,000 Christian schools serving 700,000 students, he isn’t even counting Lutheran and Catholic parochial schools. There are 800 elementary schools operated by congregations of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, serving 78,000 students. And there are also 5,920 Catholic schools, serving 1,693,493 students.  So that would come to almost 15,000 Christian schools of one kind or another.  And I know that many of these schools are also embracing classical education.  (See this for what’s happening among the Lutherans.)

 

Illustration:  White Schoolhouse by by amcolley via Openclipart, Public Domain

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