Christian Schools and School Choice: 4 Considerations

Robert F. Davis previously served as vice president for Advancement at Bryan College in Tennessee and consulting vice president for Advancement and Alumni Affairs at Liberty University in Virginia. | (Photo: Robert F. Davis)

There are two things I can remember from 20 to 25 years ago about school choice, which appears to be more important now than then.

While sitting in a committee meeting at a local Christian school, helping to create a strategic plan, a question was asked. "Should we begin to discuss vouchers for choice since it is being discussed in the news?" After about seven or eight minutes of talk the group moved on to other things such as recruitment and the raising of capital.

Around the same time I came across an article by a friend, Dr. James Skillen, now retired, but then a college professor and later Executive Director of the Center for Public Justice, then in Annapolis, now in Washington, DC. Jim's article dealt with school choice and whether vouchers or tax credits were better. This brief article had a profound effect on me although probably not profound enough for me to work vigorously to raise greater consciousness.

Now, however, with a president who speaks about it and a Secretary of Education who supports the idea of vouchers, perhaps Christian schools should begin to seriously consider the implications for Christian K-12 institution.

My experience has been that Christian schools are often "behind the curve" on many issues confronting not only education, but Christian education specifically. I vividly remember serving on the department chair's committee at a Christian preparatory school and discussing "modular scheduling," that which is now known as "block scheduling." When I was in junior high school it was simply called extended periods for physical education, shop, and a few lab courses for which extended time worked well.

Talk about "behind the curve," I stated, "We all read the same educational pages and the same educational journals, why then are we considering now, in the east, what the mid-west is abandoning?" That very meeting became our last before an "ad hoc steering committee" was appointed to deal with the subject. That committee acted to implement the new scheduling concept the following September and it was reversed by December of the same year as a failure.

New ideas or directions should not be taken lightly and I believe that "school choice" is just that kind of initiative. I'll bet many of you already have things popping up in your mind, things which you believe would be important for making such an adjustment at your school. Me too! I'm not even going to try to be exhaustive, but to simply highlight four areas I believe to be foundationally important.

First, "strings" — what strings might be attached to what will be considered "government money?" This goes back to Dr. Skillen's article where he concluded, at the time, that "tax credits" might be a better route to take. The stories of schools such as Grove City College, the pioneer in this regard, and Hillsdale College, neither of which will accept government money in any form. are informative. As no small matter to be considered, excellent legal and tax counsel should be involved in all aspects of discussion. Remember the corny old adage, "Once the camel has its nose under the tent it's too late."

Second, "tuition" — how will all of this affect tuition, will it change appreciably? It was back around the same time this whole matter popped up that I had two conversations with the late American libertarian, Marshall Fritz. Marshall and I sat for an hour and a half on the athletic field of a Pennsylvania Christian college, at which I was speaking. The conversation was about Christian education and took off in many directions. Marshall being from California and me from New Jersey revealed thoughts and experiences often travelling on different paths.

Our second conversation was a lengthy telephone call. I was at my desk and Marshall in his car riding north on the Pacific Coast Highway as we talked. Marshall asked me one probing question which has stuck with me all of these years. "Do you know what a sliding scale for tuition is?" I said, "Yes, tuition that is adjusted according to the ability of the payee." He said, "Correct." Then he went on to ask, "How much would you charge someone capable of paying $250,000 a year?" I said, "Full tuition." Marshall's retort was, "Why not $250,000." I said, "Marshall you're crazy." He didn't think so!

Why the anecdote? I believe that it strikes at a significant consideration for your school. How much will you now charge for tuition? Remember and be guided by the fact that parents have been paying both your tuition and the state's education tax. Because of this fact, in my mind this provides the opportunity to raise tuition at least by the amount of the voucher, more closely funding the education you offer and the opportunity to raise faculty salaries above the poverty level and more in line with public school compensation. Now you're probably saying "Robert, you're crazy." I don't think so!

Third, "more for less" — Christian school always provide more for or with less! This is something I will address at another time, but for the sake of this discussion, think on this. The cost to educate each student at a Christian school is always less than the cost in the public sector. And while having less to offer at Christian schools, that is to say: in course selection, choices of musical groups, and of course athletic options; Christian school students most always score higher on standardized tests. Furthermore Christian school graduates are accepted to as prestigious a group of schools as public school graduates. Non-Christian university preparatory schools fall into a different category because of the extraordinary tuition differential. In order to compete here a school must do that which one Christian school I know does, which is to charge $51,000 for annual tuition.

Fourth, the all important element for success — the "marketing plan!" I can't remember a Christian school, with which I was affiliated in some way, having a board accept and approve a marketing plan. I once wrote one for a school at which I taught, but it never made it past my desk. Such a plan includes 10 carefully crafted components including "measureable objectives." The one major "turn-off" of the plan generally centers around the "budget" which usually calls from spending 10% of the annual budget on marketing. I guess short-sightedness results in the assumption that most boards really don't consider the education they are offering worth the marketing investment. This element will probably become the most divisive and sticky with which to deal!

"To plan or not to plan," that is the question! "To be ready or not to be," so is that. So what will you do? Will you make the time, ask the hard questions, and carefully craft a plan or sit, "wait and see" what happens with vouchers? It's your "choice."

Robert F. Davis has 40 years of experience providing counsel for educational and not-for-profit institutions. He previously served as vice president for Advancement at Bryan College in Tennessee and consulting vice president for Advancement and Alumni Affairs at Liberty University in Virginia.

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