The beginning of the school year is always a great time to talk about the cost of tuition and fees, and how that affects decisions parents make about placing their children in a Christian school. After 35 years of experience working in education, 30 of that in private, Evangelical Christian schools, I've made a lot of observations about value, and how that is determined by parents who are constituents of the schools, and by the schools themselves.
Christian schools exist mainly because the increasing public ownership and control of public education, which has expanded significantly since Horace Mann first proposed a public education system with compulsory attendance in the mid-1800's, has made public schools "religiously neutral" in their philosophy, leaving out Bible instruction, prayer, and Christian influence in curriculum development in favor of a more secular, humanist perspective.
Court rulings determined that the easiest way to achieve religious neutrality in public schools, and avoid violating the establishment clause was to remove all references and practices associated with any religious belief, rather than to try and balance "community influence." That created an opening for humanism to completely take over the curriculum. And that prompted Christian denominations and churches to establish their own schools.
How to finance an education that had previously been supported by tax dollars created some problems. Initially, the Catholic Church established a "Ministry of Education," and committed a fourth of the church's national budget to support schools. Declaring them as a ministry of the church permitted church servants committed to a vow of poverty to become teachers, saving schools the expense of teacher salaries. Evangelical Christians, who are scattered among dozens of different denominations and independent, autonomous churches, and which did not have the funds to commit so much to ministries that only served a small percentage of their memberships, resorted to tuition payments from parents to cover expenses, that, along with the use of church facilities for classes, and the generosity of teachers willing to work for well under the established salary scale, helped establish and maintain schools.
How Much is a Christian Education Worth to You?
There's really not much question at all about the effect a public education system, controlled by secular humanists, has had on American Christianity, especially its younger, school-aged generations. Spending five days a week, 7 hours a day in an educational setting where the things learned at church are not mentioned and nothing is integrated into the curriculum takes its toll. In a Christian home, God is the creator and sustainer of the universe, worshipped and revered, and trusted to bring personal salvation from sin. At school, he doesn't exist, and what is revered and worshipped is the educated human intellect, as the solution to all humanity's problems, its own salvation of itself.
Not all kids submit to that, but those who are only engaged in their local church for the worship hour on Sunday, or maybe an hour three times a month in youth group on a midweek night, are vulnerable, and that's, frankly, more than the majority of church-affiliated families are engaged with their Christian faith. And while there are some Evangelical ministries and data-trackers who insist that the loss of membership they've experienced since the late 1980's isn't real, the census data that shows a 20% drop in Evangelical church membership since 2000 matches what individual churches and denominations report in their membership statistics.
The younger generations are missing from the church rolls.
The Catholic Church saw this happening in the early half of the 20th century, and committed a fourth of their budget to their schools with the promise that a Catholic family who wanted their children to remain Catholic could send them to the parish school, pay little or no tuition, and they'd virtually guarantee the commitment as part of the expected outcome. The church still spends a significant percentage of its budget on its schools, though the "vow of poverty" volunteers have declined and expenses have increased, a Catholic student can go to a Catholic school for an average of less than $5,000 a year in most cases.
So how much is a Christian education really worth?
The Association of Christian Schools International, ACSI, of which MCA is a fully accredited member, says the average tuition and fees in its schools in the United States is $18,225.00 per student per year. That includes an average of $5,000 in financial aid, scholarships and in-kind expense coverage. And while that doesn't guarantee that a graduate of a Christian school will remain a faithful, committed believer and member of a local church into adulthood, it certainly makes the odds of that happening better than the 78% of church youth who now leave the church before they graduate from college.
Oh, and about 85% of those students in Christian schools meet or exceed academic benchmarks on standardized tests in reading, language arts and mathematics. Most state departments of education are happy if half their students make those benchmarks.
Comparatively, the national average cost per year per student in public education is $21,264.00. That means, over the course of elementary school through high school, slightly more than a quarter of a million dollars will be invested in just one student's education. That amount varies from state to state, as do the measurements of their academic achievement. But let's just say that most state superintendents of public instruction would be through the roof excited if their proficiency percentage was 85%. Nationally, in math, it's dropped below 30% since COVID, in reading, and language arts, its in the low 40's.
In Illinois, the per pupil cost for a year in public school is $20,124.00, and that actually drops to $18,532.00 in Chicago. There've been reports from some media sources indicating that Chicago's cost has soared to over $30,000, but this figure is arrived at by taking the school district's total budget, and dividing it by the number of students. That's for 2022-23. In Illinois, proficiency in math, reading and language arts has dropped into the 30% range over the past two years, from a high of 41% in 2018, and in Chicago, it's actually a little higher, 36%, down from 44% in 2018.
Of course, the amount that each individual adult parent pays in school taxes to support their child's education in public school is far, far less than what they would have to cover with tuition in a private school. All taxpayers, including businesses, and those who don't have children in school, share in the cost of public education. The average per household nationwide is less than $1,000 per year. In a private school, a parent has to pay tuition to cover the cost of providing their child's share of the education.
At MCA, the "cost per student per year" when the whole value of what is provided, comes out to more than $15,000.00 per year. But a good chunk of that is subsidized, so the tuition and fees are not anywhere near that high. Midwest Bible Church subsidizes this cost by providing the use of debt-free facilities with no lease or rent, a value equal to $2,000.00 per year, per student. Our teaching staff, all of whom are educationally and professionally qualified, add $3,000 per year, per student to the value of a year's worth of education here by working for salaries that are more than 50% lower than their public school counterparts. It's a sacrifice made with the understanding that this is a ministry, and one which benefits parents.
The actual cost our parents pay, including scholarships and discounts which more than a third of our families qualify to receive, is under $6,000 per year, including the registration fee. It comes out to about $5,500.00. For that, your child is in a distinctively Christian school atmosphere every day, with teachers who are committed Christians, fully accredited (most religious-based private schools in Chicago are not), where the proficiency in mathematics, reading and language arts exceeds 85%.
Treasure His Word in Your Heart
How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you. Do not let me stray from your commandments. I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you. Psalm 119:9-11, NRSV
As I said before, there are no guarantees that sending your child to a Christian school will end up producing the kind of results parents expect. But what we can guarantee is that while they are here, the written word of God will be integrated into every subject area, it will be taught every day, and God will be worshipped as the creator and sustainer of the universe. Although academics are a very important consideration, and our desire is to provide the best to our students, I've heard parents with kids who aren't high achievers still express gratitude for the Christian influence their kids got from the Christian school they attended. It was, they said, "worth it."
Since I started in Christian school education, I've come to believe that this can, and should, become a true ministry of the church, one which brings Christians together, out from behind our theological, doctrinal and traditional walls into a spirit of unity in Christ. What if our churches would, collectively, invest a fourth of their budgets in Christian education, which means spending it on children and youth in schools? What kind of difference would it make if 75% of the children and youth in our church pews and Sunday school classrooms each week were in one of our Christian schools, instead of just the 10% who currently can afford it?
A vision takes different priorities and commitments, and results in God multiplying the blessing.