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Numbers crunch

Back to School | The rise of charter schools plus attacks on voucher programs equals difficult times for many faith-based urban schools

Issue: "The Purge," Sept. 12, 2009

It was February and Angie Levin had just driven 200 miles in the cold to take her autistic son, Cade, to his private school. She had driven five hours twice a week for five hours of schooling all year and she was exhausted. "I don't think I can physically do this anymore," she told her husband, Keith. Looking back, she says she was a "walking zombie."

But Cade was the only child with special needs in their rural Arizona public-school district and the neighboring district of Prescott was too full to take him. So they took the money they'd made from Angie's home-based business and started their own private school for autistic children in Prescott. Angie, the self-described acronym queen and a certified teacher, dubbed the school ASCEND: Autism Spectrum Center for Educational and Neurological Development. Keith, a general contractor, scrambled to bring the building up to code while Angie collected cast-off furniture from the public school and bought 25-cent chairs from Habitat for Humanity.

Arizona offered vouchers for special needs and foster care children to attend private schools. The Levins started spreading the word to other special needs families they knew, and "they were on it like hotcakes," said Angie.

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For the first two years, every family at ASCEND used vouchers, and the Levins say they couldn't have started the school without them. Now the Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that the voucher program is unconstitutional-another setback for voucher programs nationwide as private education faces a precipitous decline.

For the first time in seven years, the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) saw a drop in the Christian student population-a 4.6 percent decline-as 200 Christian schools closed or merged last year. In a typical year, 150 close or merge.

People are hasty to blame the recession, but faith-based urban schools have been declining for decades. A 2008 White House report on their "rapid disappearance" says that from 2000 to 2006, the number of faith-based urban schools lost is as great as the entire Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest public-school district in the nation. Since 1990, 13 percent of central-city Lutheran schools have disappeared and over a quarter of urban Baptist schools. The Catholics have lost 1,000 schools every decade since 1960.

Charter schools are partly responsible. In Englewood, Calif., First Church of God Christian Schools-an institution since 1972-closed its doors after two nearby private schools converted to charter and promptly took five of FCGCS' best teachers and almost 20 percent of its students. The Christian school closed a third of its classes in each grade that year and lost 20 percent of its students each year afterwards. When it closed in 2006, it was down to 100 students from a peak of 650.

The same thing happened to Eagle Heights Academy in Revere, Mass., a school over a quarter century old with one of the lowest private-school tuitions in a community where Boston University had to step in and take over the daily management of a public school. Eagle Heights Academy folded once a charter school opened and siphoned off 20 percent of its students (and several teachers) in less than a year.

James Collins, pastor of Eagle Heights Church, said the parents' commitment to Christian education is often low: Parents brought their children because they saw the Christian school as a haven from bad influences, not because they wanted a spiritual education.

Bob Rogalski, a marketer for Christian schools with the Christian School Development Center, divides Christian school supporters into two groups that sometimes clash. The first-the "Stalwarts"-passionately believe in a Christian education that strengthens morals and theology. They run the church that runs the school and write prompt donation checks to support it. The "Seekers" are the Gen-X parents-spiritual but not religious, looking not for doctrine but accreditation, not for theology but textbooks, an education that will prepare their kids more for the job market than the afterlife. If they're out of money they'll go to a charter school instead, and the "Baptist" in the name just won't impress them.

Arizona is actually a model for how charter schools and schools like ASCEND can simultaneously thrive, thanks in part to its voucher and tax-credit programs. Nearly 100,000 students attend Arizona's charter schools, but the Diocese of Phoenix still saw its enrollment increase 2 percent from 2004 to 2006.

Some parents-the parents whose kids used Arizona's voucher program for special needs and foster care children-are wholly committed to private schools. Nineteen voucher families added their testimony to the voucher court case, pleading with the court not to send their children back to public schools. One mom said a public-school classmate stabbed her 6-year-old autistic son in the eye with a pencil, and teachers blamed her son for not being more aware of his surroundings when a scorpion bit him at school.

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