We Talk About “School Choice”, but is it Really a Choice?

Over 85% of the school aged students in the United States attend public schools of some kind, whether it is a neighborhood school, magnet school of some kind or a charter school. They are all supported by public funds from one tax budget or another. That’s not confirmation of the excellence of those schools, or their compatibility with the values of all of the families who send their children to them, it’s more the result of economic reality.

Public or private, the average price tag of a year of education in the United States runs around $15,000. That’s an average cost, including teacher salaries, materials, facilities and other costs associated with running a school, including transporting the students. If you attend a public school, those costs are paid for by tax dollars. If you’d prefer not to attend a public school, you have to find a way to finance that yourself. What that means is that parents who do not want to have their children in a public school must come up with a sizeable amount of their personal income and assets to provide an alternative, or a choice, for their children.

One option is to educate your children at home. That is not as easy, or convenient, as it may sound. There is a cost to home education as well. A home cooperative leader whom I knew a few years ago said that even with the most economical measures, it costs about $3,000 to home educate in states with minimal requirements, not including the value of the parent’s time providing the instruction. Some families cannot consider home education because both parents must work to sustain the family, or it is a single parent family dependent on the parent income.

The other option is a private school. And if you are looking for a choice that will support and undergird the values and morals you are teaching at home, and that they are learning at church, it’s a Christian school. The average Christian school tuition in the US is just over the $11,000 per year mark. For a family with two school aged children, that’s $22,000 a year, or tuition payments of $1833 a month every month, all year without a break. And most of the financial burden of a private, Christian school, over 90% of it, falls on the parents who make that choice.

What Choice Looks Like at MCA

Obviously, if your child is attending MCA, you are investing considerably less of your personal income into tuition and fees than you would be at most other private schools. Tuition, registration and other associated costs average less than $5,000 a year, since we offer discounts to make our tuition more affordable. How we are able to do that is a model for other private, Christian schools to consider, since having Christian discipleship accompany education in school is more effective in helping students understand their calling and their commitment to Christ than anything else the church does, in terms of their remaining faithful and becoming part of Christ’s church.

The biggest factor in our low tuition rate is having a faculty and staff called and committed to this ministry of education and discipleship. Your child’s teachers subsidize the cost of their education by their willingness to work for a salary far below market rates in education, literally less than half of what their peers in public school earn. If we raised all of our teacher salaries to the base level of the pay scale for Chicago Public Schools, it would require raising our tuition by at least $3,500 per year. That would still put us below average for private school tuition in the city of Chicago, but that would be more than at least half of our families could afford.

The fact that we share a campus with Midwest Bible Church, pay no rent and have no indebtedness saves another big chunk of expense. The value of our property would require raising tuition an additional $1,500 a year per student if we had any measure of debt to pay on a note. So your child’s teachers and the school’s ownership save you $5,000 a year in tuition and fee costs. Having a church that sees one of its primary ministry callings as providing a Christian school to anyone who desires to enroll, regardless of their church membership, and a staff that recognizes their spiritual gifts and calling are given to them to teach your children is a gift from God.

The Cost of a Christian School Education Excludes 85% of Families in Evangelical Churches

It is an economic reality that 85% of the families sitting in the pews of Evangelical churches each week are not able to afford a Christian school education for their children. That’s not “school choice.” They have no choice, simply because their family income and expense structure will not support the additional expense of tuition and fees. And while it is true that not all Christian parents recognize the impact that the educational and social environment of a public school will have on their children, even many of those who do realize the problems just don’t have the means to exit the public school system.

Many churches have a Christian education ministry. Sunday Schools exist in about half of the Protestant churches in the United States and many churches also support youth group ministries, children’s ministries and other church-related discipleship ministries like summer camps and vacation Bible schools. But only about a fourth of the members of any given church participate in those ministries on a weekly basis and the amount of time children and teenagers are involved is a fraction of the time that they spend during the week under the influence of their teachers in school. In fact, this is one of the “back doors” through which churches are losing their younger members. Statistical data supports the contention that upwards of 80% of the children raised in an Evangelical church will leave the church completely during their college years. The Bible points to Christian discipleship as one of the most important functions of the church and it can’t be replaced by secular public education without consequences.

One of the commendations made by the visiting accreditation team a few weeks back made note of the commitment of Midwest Bible Church to Midwestern Christian Academy. Over the past five years, the church has sustained the school through a deep valley, providing the resources to renovate the main educational facility and the Pre-K building, and now, the gymnasium while at the same time providing subsidies which helped pay the bills when the school endured a crisis in 20I7-I8. It is rare for an Evangelical congregation to sponsor or operate a Christian school, even more so as Christian schools have been closing at a rate of about 300 per year. It is even more rate to find an Evangelical Christian church that will financially contribute to support a Christian school. There was no standard in the accreditation protocol to which the commendation could be attached.

But this church, Midwest Bible Church, sees Midwestern Christian Academy as an extension of its discipleship ministry and as a calling from God to support and sustain the school’s work, sharing a campus and spiritual leadership. A Christian school on a church campus won’t generate revenue for the church unless it is only a tenant, using space that would more than likely sit empty all but a few hours a week. But increasing costs, passed along to parents through tuition hikes, are causing many independent Christian schools to close, as almost half of those which once existed in this country have done in the past two decades. Churches seeing Christian schools as a vital discipleship ministry extension and providing at least some of the material support they need to operate, is one of the few remedies to a growing problem.

There is a Biblical Model for Christian Schools as a Discipleship Ministry of the Church

In 1884, responding to the complaints from parents and from clergy about the “Protestant domination” of the public education system, the bishops ordered every parish to build a Catholic school. The end result was that literally millions of children, mostly immigrants and the children of poor families, were educated in Catholic schools. It produced a wave of increased membership and attendance, and of loyal participation to the church, unprecedented before or since among American Catholics. The movement peaked in the 1960’s when over 5 million children, representing four out of every five Catholic families in the country, were enrolled.

Most families paid nothing, because the entire Christian education budget of the churches and parishes, which constituted 45% of all expenses incurred by the Catholic church, went into the schools and was invested in their children. Not only that, but a vast supply of teachers and school administrators was made available at virtually no cost to the schools because nuns and priests, committed to vows of poverty, provided the instruction. The byword about Catholic school education was, “Give us your children at age six and we will guarantee they will always be Catholic.”

By contrast, the churches that make up the largest Protestant denomination in America collectively spend less than 7% of their income on any ministry category designated as “Christian education.” Even today, as the number of priests and nuns has dwindled to less than a tenth of the total educational personnel of Catholic schools, and payroll costs have increased, the average tuition at Catholic schools in the US is right at $3,000 per year, considerably less than the $11,000 average at an Evangelical Christian school.

But we have a Biblical model for ministry that supports the church providing for the discipleship and education of its children, sharing the burden of providing resources, including facilities and trained, qualified teachers, that would allow any parent who wants to choose a Christian school to do so without having to worry about financial considerations. We just have to look at what we are doing, what are our priorities in ministry, and for the future, and invest in what is important. Is the discipleship and education of the church’s children a high priority, or are we content to let them be influenced by the secular humanism of public education and be lost to all of our other causes, including Evangelism?

The opening chapters of the book of Acts provide some inspirational and motivational verses for the church. But taken as a whole, most churches in our American economic system pretty much ignore the fact that the church took care of all of its own ministry needs and saw every member as accountable to share from their wealth to do things like make sure the physical needs of everyone in the church was met. They met daily, mobilized their spiritual gifts to fulfill the functions of worship, discipleship, ministry, evangelism and fellowship together. And they contributed from their own personal wealth to the needs of the church.

If you look at Acts 4, you will see two things that helped the church put its priorities in order. 1.) They prayed for boldness. And they got it. 2.) They had everything in common. Everything. They gave everything to God. When they prayed, the place where they gathered was “shaken,” according to the scripture and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. And as the narrative records, “There was not a needy person among them.” That’s power. That’s where we need to be.

There are a lot of state programs and funds and scholarships and tax credit that benefit private, Christian schools. But ultimately, the responsibility to raise up children who “rightly divide the word of Truth,” and who are discipled and equipped to use their spiritual gifts for service in Christ’s church is ours. And Christian schools have been doing it, depending largely on tuition from parents and not very much on help from the church.

In a previous school, I once had a parent complain to me about a tuition discount program that we had in place, saying that it seemed there was some kind of “expectation” in the school that those who could afford it were expected to help out those who could not. I directed him to Acts Chapter 4 to which he responded, “But that was of their own free will.” Yes, it was. And there was not a needy person among them. In spite of all of the government programs that may exist, now or at some point in the future, those are all things on which we grow dependent and which can be removed without much notice. My prayer is that we go to God with boldness, pray with boldness and be filled with the Holy Spirit. This is a God-sized need. Our children do not need to be in Caesar’s schools.

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