The US educational landscape moved into a new and potentially significant direction last week with the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary in the new Trump Administration. Some in non-public (defined in various ways as parochial, or parent controlled, or private) education as well as those in charter schools were delighted with the choice, seeing the possibility that more equitable choices of education may emerge for all parents. Most in traditional public education were dismayed that a person who has not been involved in public education as a parent or professional was now likely to weaken support for public education by allocating more funds away from public education, particularly into the hands of for-profit charter school operators. Having worked in both public and Christian education, here are some of the concerns and possibilities I see on each side of the ledger.
Public schools have been significantly impacted by federal legislation and school choice in states where that has been an option. The No Child Left Behind Era of standards and accountability had mixed results – while improving and focusing education in many places, it too often reduced the educational experience to a focus on “drill and kill” of basic skills or test preparation and a narrowing of the educational experience for many students. If survival as a teacher or school depended on students passing a test, then overemphasis on passing the test became the name of the game.
This anxiety also ramped up the rampant and ongoing perpetual motion machine of trends and new strategies and produced an inability to maintain long-term sustained improvement of instructional practice. At the same time in some states, students were being bled off from the neediest school districts as parents took advantage of schools of choice locally or went to charter schools.
Additionally, public schools were forced to focus a lot on compliance issues which also increased as politicians, responding to public pressure, attempted to provide “quick fixes” to the problems. Educators of quality in public education who are attempting to advance a common civic narrative have a right to be concerned that more choice will mean less money for them and more money for all other schools of choice, whether public or private. There are many quality public schools in stable or wealthy communities who would not be impacted by further school choice, but what about those trying to serve impoverished or needy families and communities?
In the meantime, many faith-based schools have hung on by their fingernails through a difficult recession and competition from public charters whose advertising to parents has been to enroll their children for a “values education at no tuition cost!” It is sometimes assumed by the general public that all parents who send their kids to a faith-based school are wealthy – that is not the case. In most faith-based schools there are a significant percentage of parents/students who receive some kind of financial assistance. Parents who choose a faith-based school are paying their taxes for public education and then committing additional funds so their child can receive a faith-based education. In the name of equity, why should parents have to pay twice for their child’s education?
For those faith-based schools that serve the most difficult and underserved students, there is the challenge of raising 90% or more of their operating budget from donor bases. Even under these circumstances of low staff salaries, limited programs, inadequate resources, and subpar educational environments, we see some extraordinary results in terms of student performances. For example, one of our newest CACE schools, River of Life, serves a 100% minority parent population whose average income is around $16,000 per year, forcing them to raise about 95% of their budget from donors who believe in urban Christian education. This year, 75% of the students are coming from a single parent home and 60% have little or no church home. Yet, even in only their third year of existence, River of Life has consistently taken kids who were below grade level in their public schools and bringing them above grade levels in math and reading. They are giving students and parents hope for the future and teaching them about Jesus. What even more amazing things might this school accomplish if they were given the state per pupil grant of approximately $8,000 for each student?
As you can see, this problem is vexing from both sides – yet we have evidence from other current situations that sometimes our fears are not realized and that there are better solutions. Take for example the province of Alberta, Canada where Christian education is thriving – under a scenario where Christian schools are actually part of the public system and receive equal funding. The public school system wishes to provide many options to parents and so ensures that the schools under its jurisdiction maintains sharpness and clarity to their missions so that parents may have real choices. At the same time, there is a common expectation that each school reach certain standards to be accredited and that there is sound teaching of civic duty and the common good of the province and country.
To further speak to concerns of public educators who might believe that Christian schools don’t educate for the common good, one need only to see from the latest Cardus research that Christian schools in Canada are actually doing a better job of educating students for civic participation than all other types of schools. The Alberta system seems to be a workable solution for a diverse and pluralistic society – could it work in the U.S.?