School Choice & Charters

Evangelical Christian Schools See Growth

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 07, 2004 7 min read
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The 1990s saw significant shifts in religious-school attendance patterns, as enrollment in schools operated by evangelical Christians rose, while enrollment at Roman Catholic schools declined, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Children in Catholic schools still make up nearly half of all private school students, though their share of that sector fell to 47.1 percent in the 2001-02 school year from 53 percent in 1991-92. During that period, the share of private school enrollment for schools considered conservative or evangelical Christian increased from 12 percent to 15.4 percent, or to 823,000 students.

“Characteristics of Private Schools in the United States” is available online from NCES.

But a poor economy in recent years and the rising costs of running private schools have slowed the start-up of religious schools since the 1990s, some leaders of private school associations say.

The perception among evangelical Christians that public schools are increasingly secular and are not teaching the kinds of values they care about fueled the formation of new schools in the 1980s and 1990s, according to leaders of Christian school groups.

“You can’t have a Bible in the public schools. If you are a teacher, you can’t talk to people about your faith and you can’t pray in school,” said Ed Gamble, the executive director of the Southern Baptist Association of Christian Schools, based in Windermere, Fla.

“When the school system begins to weed out what Christians hold dear,” he said, “they begin to become alienated. They say: ‘This is no longer the place for my child. We need to start our own school.’ ”

Such unease among people of faith with public schools sounds similar to perceptions that spurred an enormous expansion of Catholic schooling in the late 19th century, said Michael J. Guerra, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association, in Washington.

In 1884, U.S. Catholic bishops met in Baltimore and declared that every Catholic parish should have a school, and that Catholic parents should send their children to those schools. The decision was “driven by a conviction that the larger society was hostile to Catholic values,” Mr. Guerra said.

But Catholics are “in a different place” today, he said. “We’re not interested in separating ourselves. In the 19th century, we were interested in circling the wagons. We see ourselves now in the position of living in the community and helping that community to live up to its ideals.”

Enrollment at Catholic schools continues to decline, according to Mr. Guerra, in part because many Catholics have moved out of city neighborhoods where Catholic immigrants initially settled and where parishes operated schools. He noted that the creation of new Catholic schools hasn’t kept up with the pace of the closing and consolidation of others. (“Catholic School Closures on Increase,” May 21, 2003.)

New Catholic schools have opened recently in Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Orlando, Fla., but the church leadership has been slow in some places to respond to Catholics’ requests for new schools, Mr. Guerra added.

Shifts in Statistics

James C. Carper, a professor of social foundations of education at the University of South Carolina and an expert on religious schools, said the growth of evangelical Christian schools in the 1990s could be exaggerated because some schools might have been overlooked by the government earlier and then counted at the end of the decade. “Was the growth due to new students coming into private schools or schools that were below the radar screen being counted?” he said.

He added, however, that some evangelical Christians are more vocal about their dissatisfaction with public schools, though there are also evangelical Christians who support them and “almost see them as a mission field.”

Private School Enrollment

Shifting enrollment patterns at religious schools in the 1990s meant more students for conservative Christian schools.

% of Student Enrollment
Type of school 1991 1999 2001
Nonsectarian 14.8% 15.7% 16.9%
Roman Catholic 53.0 48.6 47.1
Conservative Christian 12.0 15.0 15.4

He surmised the nation hasn’t seen the last of proposals such as the one discussed at the Southern Baptist Convention last summer, and which was defeated, that called for Christian parents to remove their children from public schools. (“Vote Sought on Public School ‘Exodus,’” May 26, 2004.)

By far, most people of faith send their children to public schools. Only about 10 percent of children who attend school in the United States go to private schools, and that proportion, or some 5.3 million students currently, has stayed about the same for years.

The percentage of private school students attending religious schools overall has also stayed fairly stable. That share of private school enrollment slipped slightly from 85.2 percent in the 1991-92 school year to 83.1 percent in 2001-02 school year.

But the proportions of enrollment at the different types of religious schools are shifting.

The 1990s brought small increases in the shares of the private school enrollment pie at Jewish, Islamic, and Amish schools. Meanwhile, the enrollment shares at Quaker, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, Assembly of God, Methodist, and some other types of religious schools either stayed the same or shrank.

The data come from surveys of private schools in the 1991-00 and 2001-02 school years conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, the data-gathering arm of the Education Department. The center’s most recent report on those findings, “Characteristics of Private Schools in the United States: Results from the 2001-02 Private School Universe Survey,” was released in October.

The report excludes home schools to the extent that it says a “private school” is housed in a building that isn’t used primarily as a residence. A schooling operation that is not located in someone’s home, that has a teacher, and that provides instruction is considered a private school—even if its students are home schoolers who come only for a class or two.

The study characterizes schools as “conservative Christian” if they are members of any one of four conservative Christian school associations.

Researchers of religion outside of the government use “conservative Christian” interchangeably with “Christian evangelical” or “born-again Christian.” Such Christians emphasize the acceptance of Jesus Christ as their personal savior and feel they should share that message with other people, said Ken Smitherman, the president of the Association of Christian Schools International, located in Colorado Springs, Colo. The ACSI is the largest of the four Christian school associations.

Some Things ‘Just Wrong’

Indianapolis is one of the cities that saw considerable growth in evangelical Christian schooling in the last decade, according to Brian S. Simmons, the superintendent of Heritage Christian School, a nondenominational school in the northeast section of the city that is a member of the ACSI. Mr. Simmons named several other evangelical Christian schools in the city that are either new schools or expanding.

Enrollment at Heritage has increased from 1,180 to 1,600 students, or 36 percent, since Mr. Simmons took over the helm of the school eight years ago. While public schools near Heritage are strong academically, parents seek out the Christian school because they perceive society as becoming more secular and they want “stronger fundamental Christian moorings for their children,” Mr. Simmons said.

Leaders of Christian schooling associations echoed that sentiment, saying that how public schools teach about human sexuality is increasingly a concern for evangelical Christians.

To send children to some public schools, added Mr. Gamble of the Southern Baptist school group, is “to send them into an environment in which they are taught that homosexuality is just a choice and abortion is OK, and immorality and living with somebody you aren’t married to is an alternative family relationship. Those things are just wrong to us.”

He said such concerns caused Southern Baptists to create new schools in the 1980s and 1990s, but the growth has slowed in the past few years because of the downturn in the economy.

Meanwhile, some other Christian groups, such as the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, kept about their same shares of private school enrollment throughout the 1990s.

In contrast to what may be happening with evangelical schools, “Friends education is not about reacting to anything,” said Tom Hoopes, the director of education for the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, a faith community comprised of more than 100 Quaker meeting communities.

“Friends education is a constant in a time of shifting sands, both in terms of ethics and educational purpose,” he said. “It offers a holistic, quality academic education grounded in clear positive moral values: tolerance, nonviolence, respect for others, open-mindedness.”

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