The Christian school movement in North America faces sober new challenges. In many wonderful ways, it has come of age. In some ways, I wonder if it is ready for the hard days ahead.
I thought of all this last week when I visited my boyhood home in Iowa, and celebrated opening day at the same school where 51 years earlier I had settled into my fifth-grade desk for my very first experience in a Christian school. I even got to chat with Dorothy Thompson, my teacher back then, who in spite of her 91 years keeps pretty good track of all that is going on.
Here are my concerns:
Expectations. One problem Christian schools used to have is rarely mentioned these days. Folks used to fret over the quality of education their kids might find in fledgling schools. Nowadays, partly because of the experience the schools have gained and partly because of the faltering record of state schools, parents tend to assume that what they find at the local Christian school will at least be on a par with what they'll find at the public school, and maybe even better.
That very fact, though, produces new problems. With expectations so high, Christian schools no longer even try to make excuses for dingy basement classrooms or underqualified teachers. Instead, they have upgraded dramatically on every front. Yet now, hurrying to keep their clientele happy, they find themselves also challenged to keep their product affordable for those same customers. Families with two, three, or four children now typically face annual tuition bills sometimes topping $15,000-and in some quarters, Christian education is becoming an option only for the economically elite. Administrators and board members are agonizing over the challenge.
Filled schools. For a long time, Christian schools operated at less than full capacity. That meant that if a classroom had 16 students, and then had Student No. 17 come along, no new classroom had to be built, and no new teacher had to be hired. All the tuition revenue from Student No. 17 tended to be gravy.
By the 1990s, however, a typical Christian school tended to be full. So when Student No. 26 came along, it meant the school had to pay for 1/26th of a new classroom, along with 1/26th of a new teacher's salary. The schools were growing, sometimes rapidly-but the growth didn't necessarily bring new efficiency. Administrators and board members are agonizing over this challenge, too.
Bigger salaries. Nobody ever got rich teaching school. But Christian schools have regularly lagged behind everyone else in pay. Even salaries for missionaries and preachers tend to eclipse those for Christian schoolteachers. I know of schools that still start beginning teachers at less than $20,000.
So throughout the movement, administrators and boards have said increasingly to each other: "A 5 percent raise this coming year just won't cut it. We'd better look at 7 percent instead. And then we'd better do that again next year." The effect on tuition, of course, is profound. And the worry about elitism grows.
Homeschooling. Experts say more than 1.5 million children are now being homeschooled in the United States. Some say that at least a third of those students come from families that in another generation would have patronized the local Christian school. That half-million-student drop means profoundly reduced revenue for the schools. Perhaps much more costly is the loss of involvement by families who, by definition, take the education of their children very seriously.
Some Christian schools go out of their way to be friendly to homeschoolers and to accommodate their needs. Other schools see homeschooling only as competition. Either way, it's a challenge for contemporary administrators and boards.
Harder problems. It would be nice to dream that Christian schools deal only with model families. In fact, it has always been their lot to be called on to solve problems others couldn't address.
Now, however, such problems have multiplied. Roughly a third of all evangelical families are now infected with divorce or separation-with all the attendant custody issues that tear families apart. The dizzying catalog of psychological and learning disorders inflicted by modern society have to be addressed in Christian schools just as in their secular counterparts. Problems with drugs and other substances are less frequent, but by no means absent.
If you aren't already doing so, pray for your local Christian school. Be a supporter in every way. Get to know the teachers and administrators, and let them know you're backing them. Their work may be harder-and more important-than it has ever been in our society's history.