Churches Heed a Calling to Educate Poor Children

Published April 30, 2002

Inner-city Christian churches across the nation are quietly opening their own schools and making other preparations for an expected flood of neighborhood children who may soon have government dollars to pay for their special brand of private education.

The churches are taking charge in some neighborhoods because congregations and ministers are convinced that public schools neglect local children and because they believe students are more likely to succeed academically if they receive religious training.

Ten states and Puerto Rico already have programs that help families pay private school tuition, buy textbooks and cover transportation costs. That is done mainly through tuition tax credits and state tax deductions. But in places such as Milwaukee, Cleveland and the entire state of Florida, state governments give tuition payments, called vouchers, to low-income families so they can send their children to the private school of their choice, whether it’s Christian, Jewish, Muslim or independent.

Fifteen more states might follow suit with tax or voucher proposals.

Now President Bush is pushing federal legislation that some say is the next best thing to having government-funded vouchers: a refundable tax credit that would provide as much as $2,500 a year in private school tuition for parents with children in schools where most students are not up to grade level.

What would be an even bigger boon for the churches is a favorable Supreme Court ruling this spring on the Cleveland school voucher program. The justices must decide whether government support of church-related schools violates the constitutional separation of church and state. The Cleveland program awards by lottery tax-supported vouchers worth $2,250 per student.

The high court’s ruling is perhaps the most important of the court term because of the potential for a new interpretation of the First Amendment. But even if the ruling is not in the Cleveland program’s favor, church leaders are confident that philanthropy will finance vouchers or scholarships to support an increasing demand for school choice, particularly among low-income blacks and Hispanics. Churches want to be prepared to meet that demand.

‘If a visionary-minded pastor would propose starting a school in his church and had a voucher to use to pay his teachers a decent salary, it would move this whole process forward by leaps and bounds,’ says the Rev. Kenneth Sullivan, pastor of the non-denominational Charity Christian Center in Indianapolis. He spearheads an effort to encourage black churches in Indianapolis to establish Christian schools.

‘A revolution afoot’

‘There’s a revolution afoot,’ Sullivan says. ‘It’s quiet now, but it’s going to get noisy.’

The voucher idea has been around for more than 45 years. It began as an experiment in education reform and has gained acceptance among many parents as a way to escape weak or failing public schools.

Voucher supporters say that middle- and upper-class families always have had the option of sending their children to private schools and that low-income families should have similar choices. Education Secretary Rod Paige says parents pick out everything from book bags and haircuts to clothes, but then their children ‘march off to a school that some bureaucracy chose for them.’

‘Some of them are rich enough to buy choices,’ says Paige, who as Houston school superintendent supported voucher experiments.

Opponents charge that voucher programs skim the best students from public schools, avoid students with special needs and will destroy public education by leaving schools under-financed and stripped of resources.

They argue that using taxpayer money to pay for tuition for religious schooling violates the First Amendment principle of separation of church and state, and many say the typical voucher amounts of just a few thousand dollars pay only for parochial or new private schools with no academic record.

(Catholic school tuition at the elementary level averages $1,787, compared with about $10,000 for independent private grade schools. Christian school fees fall somewhere in the middle.)

As more Christian schools open, questions are arising about their ability to provide quality education for the children who desperately need it. Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, says some of the schools will provide a quality education. But he warns: ‘Most of the bills for education are paid for by people who don’t have kids in school. Why should I pay my taxes so you can send your kids to the Muslim school down the street or to the David Koresh School of Marksmanship?’

Historically, the best-known religious schools — those operated by Catholics — have good track records. Minority students have received quality education offered by Catholic schools for decades in the inner cities. Statistics show that Catholic schools make up only about one-third of the 27,223 private schools nationwide but educate about half the 5 million students attending private schools.

Enrollment has dropped and schools have been closing as urban areas deteriorate, but Michael Guerra, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, predicts a revival if vouchers survive the Supreme Court test.

Guerra says non-Catholics are the majority in some urban schools, and probably a few schools don’t educate any Catholic children at all. He quotes Cardinal James Hickey, former archbishop of Washington: ‘We are there because we are Catholics, not because they are Catholics.’

Where religious indoctrination is concerned, AASA leader Houston observes that Catholics probably offer ‘the least obtrusive’ education.

‘They have sort of been able to figure out what the middle road looks like between heavy-duty indoctrination and maintaining themselves as religious institutions,’ Houston says. ‘Some of the more conservative Christian Protestant churches probably haven’t figured that out yet.’

While educating inner-city children is nothing new for Catholics, many Protestant schools are grappling with the idea of educating children bearing vouchers who tend not to be from stable homes with strong Christian values, says Vernard Gant of the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI).

‘God is raising up urban (Christian) schools to serve as centers of hope for those families and their children plagued by the decadence and deprivation that are characteristic of central-city urban districts throughout this nation,’ Gant says. The curriculum, he says, must be culturally relevant and academically enriching.

The 27-year-old ACSI, based in Colorado Springs, has 5,000 schools worldwide representing a range of Protestant denominations — Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists — including 450 in urban areas. It serves more than 1 million students.

Gant says that in addition to the three academic R’s, students learn the spiritual three R’s of repentance, regeneration or rebirth and reconciliation; and the social three R’s of respect, responsibility and resourcefulness. Typically, there are chapel services at the schools.

The association works with each school to assure that its staff has certified teachers trained to handle the unique problems of urban youngsters who tend to perform below grade level. Schools also get help in designing, developing and assessing curricular materials.

Accreditation, which is not required of private and parochial schools, is strongly encouraged ‘so that the school makes the loudest statement that it can make in terms of its commitment to excellence,’ Gant says.

The association offers a formal accreditation process and last fall created a scholarship program that requires participating schools to be accredited or actively pursuing accreditation. Students are eligible for tuition assistance up to 75% of the school costs, up to $2,300.

Gant, director of ACSI’s Urban School Services, is busily working on ‘the supply side’ of vouchers, as he calls the effort to open Christian schools or keep them from closing. ‘The one problem with vouchers — in the cities where they are allowed — is that children, even with the money, often don’t have anywhere to go,’ he says.

‘The very thing that used to be the means by which someone could overcome their circumstances — a quality education — is unavailable to the children living (in inner-city areas),’ says Linda Tucciarone, executive director of the Heritage Academy in Augusta, Ga., the newest of six schools that Gant has helped develop. ‘With every generation, it gets worse.’

Gant faces even greater obstacles in his efforts to expand Christian schools in inner-city areas: fundraising and development.

‘Our motivation here is to encourage vouchers, whether privately funded . . . or government-funded vouchers, as in the case of tax credit legislation — whatever states would do so that families receive the financial assistance to be able to send their children to schools of choice.’

Need for moral values

Sullivan, the Indianapolis pastor and a former teacher, says he established his own North Star Christian Academy in 1995 because ‘I saw the need for spiritual moral values being taught as a foundation on which to build the academics. I felt that was the key to lack of motivation for learning.’

He has focused his effort mainly on Indiana, where 14 church-based schools and preschools in Indianapolis and one in Gary form the Urban Christian Schools Coalition, which began in 1998.

North Star Academy has renovated one former office building and two homes that had been boarded up. Nearly two entire city blocks have been revitalized over the past five years.

‘Churches are probably one of the most stable black-owned institutions in this nation, and black churches . . . have stayed in the community,’ Sullivan says. ‘Anything short of operating our own schools and having access to these children is going to show minimal results because the schools have them for seven hours a day, the church has them for a couple of hours a week. It’s not realistic to think we can turn a student around in a couple of hours.’

Houston says that without a track record, it’s hard to determine whether the churches have the answer. But some parents say it is worth the gamble.

For example, security guard Trinidad Casas of San Antonio began selling blood four times a month to make up the difference left from the privately financed scholarship his son gets to attend the Christian Academy of San Antonio. He also tries to work as much overtime as possible to earn tuition money.

‘It’s just incredible,’ says Yolanda Molina, principal of the 2-year-old academy, which has doubled in size in one year and has a waiting list of 85. ‘That’s just one story of many.’

Tamara Henry is a writer for USA Today.