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.
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.
Another boy wandered away from his public school for 20 minutes. His parents were so desperate to move to a better school district that they put their house up for sale, then took out a home equity loan and rented a house in another district. Teachers strapped one autistic girl into a chair when her aide was gone, and let another autistic boy nap and watch Monty Python movies all day. Classmates sexually harassed an autistic girl on the playground.
Dina Phipps said her son "would come home every day worse than when I dropped him off." With the help of voucher money, she started a private school called Fathers Heart Christian School with Brendan and Susan Fay, a couple whose public-schooled daughter came home at the end of the year with a portfolio of scribbles and blank pages. When Susan Fay tried to attend school with her daughter to help her, the public school said she was not welcome to do so.
Terri Christiansen said of her daughter, Ashley Thomas: "She cried every day before school. She cried every day after school. She blamed everything wrong in her life on the school. She hated her school. She used to ask me every day why I made her go to school. The question tore me apart inside."
"I will not put her back in public school," Christiansen told the court. "I would rather chew my right arm off." The families who attend Ascend echo the sentiment, adding that they can't attend without aid.
Despite their pleas, the Arizona Supreme Court overturned the voucher program last March. The parents and lawyers clamored to rescue the program, and in May, Gov. Jan Brewer called a special session of the state legislature. It quickly converted the voucher program into a tax-credit program-of the kind that has so far survived legal assault in Arizona (although those battles are far from over, too).
But in states that lack tax-credit programs or voucher programs, schools are struggling as the economy leads parents and donors to cut back. In Covina, Calif., the 40-year-old Sonrise Christian Schools has shrunk from 950 students and three campuses at its peak to 450 students and one campus today. The school charges around $5,300-less than it actually takes to educate the kids-and it's always covered the extra $500 needed with fundraising, which has declined with enrollment.
On the other side of the country, the city of Baltimore will probably tear down New Psalmist Christian School and build modular homes in its place. The school started 21 years ago with 50 students, climbed to 150 students almost a decade ago, and then plummeted to 70 last year. The church attempted a fundraising campaign, but it fizzled.
Congress has not reauthorized the Washington, D.C., voucher program, despite the support of a majority of the D.C. City Council. In Washington, D.C., the private schools that took the voucher money will be combining grades, cutting staff, and increasing class size to cope with the loss of enrollment. Most schools didn't charge any more than the $1,700 scholarship, said ACSI staff, so now those schools will have to raise funds to meet the deficit.
So are vouchers dead? In The Washington Monthly, Greg Anrig claimed that vouchers are an "idea whose time has gone" and that conservatives are abandoning their support. Matthew Ladner, vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute, said yes, the private-school choice movement has "entered a difficult period." But although some people would like to "throw the dirt on the box" and pretend vouchers are dead, he said, "The truth is we're not dead and we're not going away."
For instance, some point to recent voucher reforms in Milwaukee as a setback for vouchers. But Howard Fuller, a venerable school choice advocate and chair of the board of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, said the regulations in Milwaukee were actually a step forward. (The new rules set a higher bar for new schools to participate in the program, require teachers to have a bachelor's degree, and require students to take a "quality test.") Due to some embarrassing reports of voucher schools, he now supports limited voucher regulations and said the regulations achieved a major victory: garnering support from black Democrats.
Fuller said he solicited the support of state Sen. Lena Taylor, once a vocal choice opponent: "We both had to figure out, can we trust each other? People on her side saying, 'Don't trust Howard!' People on my side saying 'Don't trust Lena!'" Over 14 weeks, he talked to Taylor twice a day and went through 24 drafts of the bill with her, met with the other black legislators individually, and then brought six of the city's black Democratic leaders to meet at his house-a first, since the voucher program has never had the support of the black Democratic caucus in Milwaukee. Some disputed his strategy, but Fuller says, "It was only that support that enabled this program to survive much more draconian kinds of measures."
And in Washington, the voucher program has won the support of the majority of the D.C. City Council-something advocates said neither they nor their opponents thought would happen. Sen. Joe Lieberman has introduced a bill to reauthorize the program, more Democrats have signed on than expected, and seven City Council members wrote a letter asking that the voucher program continue. Ladner sees growing, irreconcilable tension between the teachers unions, which he calls "the most reactionary force within American politics today," and a Democratic Party that is genuinely progressive: "These two things don't add up. Their desire to see better educational outcomes, especially for disadvantaged kids, are being directly undermined by a traditional ally."
In the meantime, Angie Levin and her students and parents cope with uncertain funding. At the end of June, neither she nor her teachers knew if they'd be coming back next fall. The voucher program has become a tax-credit program so the school will survive, but parents and lawyers are already bracing for a legal assault on that program, too. The tax-credit program will depend on the ability of tax-credit organizations to collect $5 million before Dec. 1. Legally, they couldn't start collecting funds until Aug. 26. School started Aug. 24.
Angie said even with the voucher program, the school faced shaky funding every year, since one year the state legislature didn't fund it until the Department of Education stepped in. The voucher money never came on time and the families couldn't pay tuition costs out of pocket, so every three months the Levins borrowed from friends and businesses to scrape together the money to keep going until the state reimbursed them.
The Levins are careful to keep the school secular since it is dependent on state funds; but privately, they pray to keep it going. There were times when Angie sat down with payrolls and checks to write and no money: "I just prayed my brains out: 'Lord, where is it? I need it!' And the scholarship check will be literally in the mailbox."