By Vince Bielski, RealClearInvestigations
August 17, 2023
Conservative Christian education is being born again.
Arcadia Christian Academy, which opened in Arizona on Aug. 8, is one of dozens of Christian micro-schools popping up across the country, offering a hybrid in-class and at-home education to keep costs down and the odds of survival up in an increasingly competitive K-12 sector. What’s more, many long-established Christian schools are growing their enrollment after years of stagnation.
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.
The revamp, demanded by millennial parents and embraced by leaders of accreditation associations, is propelled by a combination of push-and-pull forces.
The push started with COVID. Public schools lost an estimated 1.2 million students during the pandemic. Upset over the long-term closure of classrooms, some parents also objected to what they observed their kids being taught during remote learning at home: Schools with a progressive tilt were teaching that gender is a fluid concept and that America is an inherently racist nation.
Evangelical schools have taken in a fair share of these public school refugees by appealing to the conservative views of parents. In their statements of faith, schools not only stress classic doctrine, such as the Bible as the word of God and the second coming of Jesus Christ. The statements also include the conservative Christian take on hot-button issues, such as it’s a sin to deny one’s biological sex.
“Alarmed that schools are embracing gender neutral ideology?” Arizona’s Dream City Christian School asks parents rhetorically on its homepage.
The pull factor – a major expansion of school choice programs – is now adding to the appeal of Christian schools. In addition to programs in 32 states that mostly provide taxpayer funding for the private education of low-income and special needs kids, eight states recently approved universal laws that make all students eligible for scholarships, regardless of family wealth. At Christian schools, these state-funded scholarships typically cover most if not all tuition, providing a powerful incentive for families that’s boosting enrollment.
But after the growth spurt, scholars and school leaders are asking a big question: Does it have legs or will it soon burn out?
New-wave Christian schooling faces plenty of headwinds. There’s competition for students from well-established Catholic schools, which have a superior academic track record, as well as rapidly expanding charter networks and homeschooling, says David Sikkink, a prominent scholar of religious education at Notre Dame. And there are the old-guard fundamentalist schools that resist accreditation and refuse to accept school-choice funding.
“Are Christian schools going to retain those parents who came at the end of COVID and continue to grow?” says Vance Nichols, head of Alta Loma Christian School in southern California. “That’s the question of the moment.”
Flocking to Christian Schools
In Florida and Arizona, the answer to that question seems to be yes, thanks to new universal choice laws.
By removing income and other restrictions on receiving school choice funding, the universal laws have expanded the eligibility pool nationwide by about 4 million students, bringing the total to more than 13 million, according to the advocacy group EdChoice.
But the sweeping laws have also sharply divided school choice advocates, with prominent players like Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute objecting to ultra-wealthy families getting taxpayer dollars to send their kids to private schools.
Florida was already a wellspring of Christian education, with about 800 schools, when it approved a universal choice program in March. The new law is expected to dramatically boost the number of choice scholarships by as much as 40% to 350,000 students for the 2023-24 school year, says Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students, which administers Florida’s five choice scholarship programs.
“A lot of bigger Protestant schools with middle- and upper-middle class students are definitely going to benefit from this expansion in demand for scholarships,” Tuthill says.
To meet demand in states like Arizona, where many Christian schools are full, educators are setting up micro-schools that enroll only about a hundred students. With students learning both in formal classrooms for a few days a week and at home for the rest, these hybrid schools keep operating costs down. To access a steady revenue stream, they are setting tuition below the choice scholarship maximum amount, allowing them to attract students with the enticing offer of a free ride. “Historically, the amount is able to cover all of our tuition costs,” which top out at $5,950, Arcadia Christian says on its website.
The new wave of micro-schools is enabled by entrepreneurial consulting groups like Soaring Education Services, which provides a one-stop shop of educational models and coaching for the Christian startups. The group, which is part of the Christian nonprofit Open Sky Education in Wisconsin, is helping launch seven micro-schools in seven states by 2024, says Jack Preus, Soaring’s national director.
“Demand for Christian schools is high,” Preus says. “Most of the growth in new schools is in micro and hybrid space.”
But traditional Christian schools are starting too. The Minneapolis-based Spreading Hope Network, which focuses on bringing a God-centered and rigorous liberal arts education to low-income urban youth, will have assisted 19 new schools and campuses get started through this year with the goal of opening 100 startups by 2032. Most of these schools are in states with choice programs, making it easier for students from poor families to afford the tuition, says Executive Director Dan Olson.
That’s true at the new campus at Pusch Ridge Christian Academy, serving mostly Latino students on the south side of Tucson. Latino pastors convinced Pusch Ridge to open the new campus after the public school district in 2020 approved a sex education program starting in the 5th grade over the objections of conservative parents, says Jonathon Basurto, principal of the new campus.
With all its low-income students certain to qualify for one or more of Arizona’s choice scholarship programs to cover the $13,000 tuition, the new Pusch Ridge campus has ambitious plans to grow from K-2 today to K-12 in 10 years.
“We are looking at a minimum of 500 students and up to 900,” Basurto says. “We have families driving 45 minutes to come to this Spanish-speaking school because it is Christian.”
Christian Schools in Crisis
The growth in Christian education is a remarkable turnaround for a movement that suffered thousands of school closures in the 15 years before the pandemic. It was a period of “crisis” for the community, says Nichols, the school leader, who wrote his dissertation at the University of Southern California on the rash of failures.
The mid-2000s were the high-water mark for Christian schools. In 2006, the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), the largest of many Protestant education associations, counted almost 4,000 schools as members, or about half the U.S. total. Membership plummeted to 2,094 by 2022 amid the shutdowns before increasing by 45 schools this year, says Nichols, who is also an ACSI commissioner overseeing accreditation.
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.
Many of the schools that shuttered in the last decade were the old-timers that remained attached to the original separatist ideology of Christian education. This took root in the 1950s when Baptist and other Christian churches began setting up hundreds of schools in response to sweeping changes in public education from Supreme Court orders that ended racial segregation and banned prayer in classrooms, according to studies of the period.
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.
“The churches were sold on the concept that all they had to do is to buy a curriculum in packets and parents could run the school without professionals,” says Howard Burke, executive director of the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, an accreditation agency. “They believed a godly mother could teach a child a Christian curriculum.”
Since then, many Christian schools have made big academic leaps forward. The best of them send students to Harvard, M.I.T., Vanderbilt, and West Point.
Alta Loma Christian, the school Nichols heads, is an example. In 2016, Nichols began introducing a serious STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program, where students learn computer coding in early elementary grades. That’s partly why Alta Loma’s enrollment has grown from 240 to more than 300 students in a highly competitive private school market in San Bernardino County.
When Paul and Nuria Koszut were looking for a Christian school for their oldest son, they rejected several that seemed like a continuation of Sunday school until they found Alta Loma. “We did want a Christian foundation at a school but also a very strong academic program,” says Paul Koszut. “Alta Loma has both parts.”
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.”
Fundamentalist Education Lives On
But a smaller number of Christian schools continue to abide by orthodoxy. They criticize bigger and academically driven schools for “being not very Christian and tempted by worldly standards of success,” says Sikkink of Notre Dame.
The fundamentalist schools also don’t see the need for accreditation – a big priority for leaders in the movement – because it brings outside oversight and standards. As a result, these schools struggle to attract students and revenue and can’t afford to offer higher-level classes like calculus and physics. “Fundamentalist schools could use some financial help,” says Sikkink.
No one knows how many Christian schools are accredited, but only 39% of more than 2,100 ACSI schools have this stamp of academic approval by the association, which is making efforts to expand that number. In Florida, where Christian schools have had more state support to develop and improve, almost 80% are accredited by independent associations.
The unaccredited schools are more likely to use the overtly patriotic Christian textbooks from Bob Jones University Press and Abeka, which were mainstays in Christian education several decades ago. School leaders now criticize the textbooks for sugarcoating America’s transgressions, such as the treatment of America Indians and black slaves. While many schools have ditched these materials in favor of more politically balanced readings, the Bob Jones and Abeka brands continue to be used at about 40% of Christian schools, estimates Sikkink, who says the textbooks remain “an issue.”
The infusion of faith-based politics into the classrooms of evangelical schools is also concerning to education leaders. They aim to steer clear of accusations that Christian schools are a conservative training ground for America’s culture wars.
A Christian school in New England blurs the line between education and activism, according to research that kept the school anonymous as a condition of access to its classes. In a lesson on transgender issues, several articles given to students all concluded that the practice of gender reassignment is wrong and harmful to teens, a position in keeping with Christian dogma about the God-given sexual identities of men and women, according to the study of the school by Jeremy Alexander of Boston College. At the end of the lesson, the teacher stressed to students the importance of voting, particularly in local school board elections, where candidates who hold anti-Christian views on issues like gender identity can be defeated.
Scholars differ on whether just a handful or a significant chunk of schools are encouraging students to be political activists guided by the conservative Christian playbook. But they agree that schools shouldn’t tell students how to think and should instead present a range of views, on everything from economics to evolution, to prepare them for the debates and compromises that are essential to a democracy.
“I don’t think the overwhelming majority of Christian schools are trying to groom culture warriors, but some of them are,” says Alexander, who published a 2022 paper on this topic. “This isn’t how students should be taught to live in a pluralistic society.”
Schools Built on Choice
Most schools benefiting from school choice are not Christian traditionalists. They shun the programs in fear that the government will try to control them despite a hands-off approach in most states. Instead, college-prep schools like Little Rock Christian Academy in Arkansas are opening their doors to state funding.
The PK-12 academy has steadily grown since 1977 to about 1,600 students, luring them with at least 18 AP classes and an average ACT test score well above the national average. The strong academic program in a Christian academy also brought Justin Smith, who holds a doctorate in education, to the school six years ago.
Smith, who heads Little Rock, says his board decided to participate in the state’s recently approved universal choice program after concluding it wouldn’t compromise the school’s Christian values with requirements other than accreditation, an award the school has already earned. As the program rolls out, increasing numbers of currently enrolled and new students will get $6,600 in funding for tuition and other expenses, reaching all students in the state by 2025.
The funding makes it easier for hardworking families to afford the tuition and stay enrolled, providing Little Rock with more stability. “It strengthens our families, and in turn, our school,” says Smith.
States like Arkansas that are just starting to expand choice programs can look to Florida to see what decades of taxpayer support for private schools can do.
So far, the biggest impact is in poor communities, where black and Latino churches have used the state funding to build and expand more than 200 schools over two decades, says Tuthill of Step Up For Students. The payoff has been the improved academic performance of underprivileged students, almost all of whom are on choice scholarships, and job growth that the schools generate in these communities.
“Show me a better anti-poverty program anywhere,” says Tuthill. “The churches are essentially running small businesses and the schools are thriving.”
Florida’s new universal program is now expanding scholarships to the middle and upper classes, benefiting schools like the high-performing Rocky Bayou Christian Academy in Niceville. It educates students from military, law enforcement, and wealthier families with a college prep curriculum inspired by the Dutch Reformed idea of schooling. “You worship God by learning,” says Superintendent Mike Mosley, who holds a Ph.D. in history. “We have 11 AP classes, including calculus BC and physics.”
Rocky Bayou has expanded from 730 students in 2021 to 1,100, partly because choice scholarships have made the tuition of about $10,000 affordable. With universal choice, the number of students on a state-funded scholarship will rise to 80%, which will allow Mosley to reduce his own school’s financial aid and redeploy it to upgrade the facilities and boost low teacher salaries. A new high school building is in the works that will push enrollment up to about 1,400.
Katie Williams, whose husband works in law enforcement, has four children at Rocky Bayou. During the pandemic, she pulled her two boys out of public school to teach them at home using a Christian curriculum that won her over. She now sends the boys and her two young daughters to Rocky Bayou to continue their Christian education.
“We would never be able to send our four children to Rocky without the choice scholarships,” says Williams, who pays only $400 a month in total tuition.
What will be the impact of more school choice funding on Christian education nationwide? Sikkink estimates that enrollment could grow by about 20% over time despite resistance from the fundamentalist wing and competition from other private schools.
“Christian schools have been reinventing themselves and it needs to continue to prepare our kids for their future,” says Nichols. “If we do this, we can prevent another downturn in the number of Christian schools.”