The Rise of the Fundamentalist Christian School

Raises Membership Issue For Independent Schools
By Cindy Currence — October 17, 1984 9 min read

Leaders of independent-schools associations are re-examining their membership standards in light of a growing number of membership inquiries from fundamentalist Christian schools.

The Independent Schools Association for the Central States, for example, has in recent months revised its membership criteria to clearly outline which kinds of private schools are eligible for membership and which are not; under the new guidelines, most fundamentalist Christian schools are not, officials suggest.

“We haven’t had a real problem, but anticipating that we might, we had to take a good, hard look at our standards,” said Thomas Read, President of the 15 state association based in Downers Grove, Ill. Last spring, after more than a year of discussion, the central-states association adopted new membership standards, including a requirement that member schools “stress the teaching of knowledge, skills, critical reasoning and independent thinking, as opposed to indoctrination.’'

National Standards

The issue of whether or not fundamentalist Christian schools should be allowed to become members in the 31 regional and state independent-schools associations affiliated with the National Association of Independent Schools was one of the main topics of discussion at a meeting of the associations’ leaders in Boston late last month. In addition, it is a topic many of the associations are discussing at home this fall, according to leaders of the regional groups.

“For the independent schools, it is a question of maintaining standards,” said Anne Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Boston-based nais “It is not a question of being exclusive, by any means.”

Membership Criteria Examined

The requests for membership from fundamentalist Christian schools have prompted many of the regional and state nais affiliates to re-examine their membership criteria for several reasons.

Until the rapid expansion of fundamentalist Christian schools, which usually are not affiliated with a particular religious organization, the problem of non-independent schools applying for membership in the independent-schools associations rarely occurred, Ms. Rosenfeld said.

The national independent-schools group has about 1,000 member schools; there are an estimated 12,000 fundamentalist schools, and their number is growing rapidly (see accompanying story on page 1).

Because most of the regional and state independent-school organizations developed years ago out of small groups of teachers and administrators of “like mind,” the need to set forth indisputably their standards for membership did not seem necessary at the time, Ms. Rosenfeld explained. Some of the regional groups have existed for many years with very vague membership criteria, she noted.

Problems Anticipated

But in recent years, as more schools that are not “independent” according to the nais definition apply for membership, problems have been anticipated by the regional associations with less well-defined standards.

Under nais policy, a state or regional association could lose its “association” membership if it began accepting many schools that did not meet the nais definition of “independent.”

Although the national organization does not set the membership requirements for its state and regional affiliates, at least half of the schools that belong to a regional association must also belong to the nais Thus, in developing new standards, state and regional affiliates are matching their membership criteria to that of the national group.

Using nais standards, few fundamentalist Christian schools would be eligible for membership in an independent-schools association, according to Ms. Rosenfeld.

The major stumbling block for the schools is their lack of independent status.

The nais defines “independent” schools using a number of criteria: The school must be fiscally self-supporting and cannot be dependent upon funds from a church or from local, state, or federal governments; it must operate under the guidance of an independent board of trustees; the school cannot discriminate on the basis of race in its admissions or personnel policies; and it must operate within the laws of the state. In addition, the nais requires that the school be accredited by one of the six government-approved regional accreditation associations.

Fundamentalists Rejected

The fundamentalist Christian schools that have applied to the national association, Ms. Rosenfeld said, have been denied membership because they were completely dependent upon their church for financial support and because their boards of directors were also the boards of churches.

It is also unlikely that fundamentalist Christian schools that use the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum would qualify for membership, she said.

The Bible-based curriculum, in which reading exercises are taken from passages in the Bible, mathematical word problems contain Biblical references, and creationism is taught as science, probably would not pass the approval procedure of an accreditation association.

ace, developed by a graduate of Bob Jones University in Greensville, S.C., is the most commonly used curriculum in fundamentalist Christian schools. (See Education Week, Feb. 23, 1983.)

Philosophical Difference

In addition to the issue of fiscal independence, in discussing changes in their membership criteria, independent-schools associations have examined the philosophical differences that separate fundamentalist and independent schools.

For example, the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, in its new policy, requires every prospective member to have a clearly stated educational mission and philosophy “consistent with the needs of children and the requirements of a pluralistic society.”

“It wasn’t actually a revision,” Mr. Read said, “it was simply a matter of articulating things we believed all along.”

In the past four years, Mr. Read estimated, five fundamentalist Christian schools have expressed interest in joining the association. To date, none has been accepted.

Under the new membership criteria, it is even more unlikely that a fundamentalist Christian school would be accepted, Mr. Read said.

The educational program in the fundamentalist schools is one of “religious dogma” that does not encourage independent thinking, and, indeed, shelters children from the real world, asserted Mr. Read. Such an educational philosophy is not compatible with that of isacs, he said.

“The most important thing we can do is encourage the development of a mind,” Mr. Read said.

“In excluding fundamentalist schools, we are not arguing against these schools; our philosophy fully recognizes the right of parents to choose an appropriate education for their children,” said Mr. Read. “We simply are not equipped to service them as independent schools.”

Rigorous Academic Review

The board of trustees for the New York State Association of Independent Schools recently completed a review of its evaluation and accreditation requirements. The assessment was not specifically related to the fundamentalist Christian schools, said Stephen Hinrichs, executive director of the association, but was an attempt to see that the requirements ensured that only “appropriate” schools would be accepted.

“The trustees had some discussion at recent meetings about what kinds of schools would be appropriate and we decided that any school that would meet the requirements would be eligible for membership,” Mr. Hinrichs said last week.

To qualify for membership in the New York association, a school must undergo a rigorous academic review starting with a thorough four- to six-month self-evaluation.

So far, no fundamentalist Christian school has applied for membership in the New York association, perhaps, Mr. Hinrichs speculated, because there is an active organization for Christian schools in the state.

In some of the associations, membership requirements related to ael60lschool’s philosophy are less stringent, but standards are required.

Schools Judged on ‘Merit’

The Georgia Association of Independent Schools, for example, does not concern itself with the philosophy of the school, said Fred H. Loveday, executive secretary of the association.

“We don’t try to judge or condescend or look down on them or anything else,” he said. “We judge each applicant on its own merits at the time and if there is a fundamentalist Christian school that meets our qualifications, they are welcome.”

Member schools must, however, be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or the Georgia Accrediting Commission. They also are required to have an open-admissions policy that does not discriminate on the basis of sex, race, or religion.

Few Schools Would Join

Concern about fundamentalist Christian schools invading the independent-schools associations is misguided, according to Paul A. Kienel, executive director of the 2,148-member Association of Christian Schools International.

“Frankly, very few of our schools would apply to these independent-schools organizations and I know of no schools that wish to join,” he said.

There is an extreme difference in private schools and religious Christian schools, Mr. Kienel said, “and we don’t like to be lumped together.”

“We teach our youngsters to look at life and the world through the eyes of God as revealed in the scripture; our ultimate objective is to inspire young people to be disciples of Jesus Christ,” he explained.

But some fundamentalist Christian schools, as they become more academically oriented, do seek out membership in the independent schools associations and have been accepted.

Ms. Rosenfeld points to the Lexington Christian Academy in Lexington, Mass., as an example.

The school, which has been a member of the nais for at least 12 years, is a Christian school, and although “we believe very firmly in the fundamentals of the faith, it would be more accurate to say we are a school out of the evangelical tradition,” said Arthur W. Hill, headmaster of the academy.

Strong Academic Tradition

In addition to the school’s emphasis on training students “from a Christian world and life view,” the academy has a very strong academic tradition and is primarily a college-preparatory institution, Mr. Hill said; about 90 percent of its graduates go on to colleges.

The academy is a member of both the nais and the Association of Christian Schools International. “We feel it is profitable for us to belong to these service organizations and receive benefits from sending our teachers to the conferences, the literature, and the results of research that they do,” Mr. Hill said.

Mr. Hill said he hopes more of the Christian schools will move toward the standards established by the nais and that more of the schools will join the independent-schools associations. “I hope that they would, as they become more sophisticated and build traditions, see what the organizations can do for them.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 1984 edition of Education Week as The Rise of the Fundamentalist Christian School