The effects of the pandemic, combined with cultural shifts and political pressure on public school curriculum has translated into a boon for Christian schools nationwide.
When Dan Decker was named superintendent of College Heights Christian School in Joplin, Mo. in July 2020, he was facing a soon-to-start school year riddled with uncertainty due to the COVID pandemic. A task force of faculty, parents, and students put together a plan for in-person classes, with a remote option for those who wanted it. Still, the school’s goal was to grow, and Decker wondered if that goal was possible in the current climate.
Fast forward to fall 2021, and College Heights Christian enrollment is up 13 percent with a waiting list for some grade levels. The school is hardly alone: Christian schools across the country are reporting double-digit increases in inquiries and enrollment.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, the median member school in the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), one of the country’s largest networks of evangelical schools, grew its K-12 enrollment by 12% between 2019-20 and 2020-21. The Association of Classical Christian Schools, another conservative network, expanded from an estimated 50,500 students in the 2018-19 school year to about 59,200 students this year.
ACSI says qualitative data suggest this uptick is due to families’ dissatisfaction with distance learning or limited on-campus instruction offered by public schools. In other words, Christian schools offered many more opportunities for in-person learning during the pandemic than did public schools.
Jeff Keaton, a leader in the movement, called this period of growth “the second Great Awakening in Christian education”—the first ‘awakening’ being the growth of Christian schools in the 1960s and 70s. Keaton is founder and president of Virginia-based RenewaNation, an organization whose mission includes starting and revitalizing Christian schools.
Christian schools have kept their doors open
The shift to remote learning and the continuation of online classes in many public schools through the fall of 2021 demonstrated to parents the weaknesses of online learning. Learning loss was real: a report by the consulting group McKinsey showed that the impact of the pandemic on K-12 student learning left students an average five months behind in math and four months behind in reading.
However, many Christian schools stayed ahead of the curve. Jay Ferguson, headmaster of Grace Community School in Tyler, Texas, wrote in a blog post for ACSI: “As standardized test scores among COVID-stricken public schools throughout the country dropped precipitously from 2019 to 2021, corresponding scores in many Christian schools that were able to stay open saw no decrease and, in many cases, increased across age levels and categories.”
Private or religious education is also becoming more accessible to families of all income levels through school choice programs, now in place in 26 states. These programs create funding sources such as Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) or vouchers that allow families to apply the public funds designated for their child’s education to a private school of their choosing. In Missouri, one of the latest states to embrace school choice funding, the legislature passed a school choice bill which went into effect in August 2021.
According to the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Phil Christofanelli, “I think COVID and all the shutdowns exposed to parents some of the real weaknesses in our traditional approach to education. [This legislation] allows them to access an alternative in the private sector that better fits the needs of their family and child.”
Christian schools offer parents curriculum they agree with
Online learning gave parents and caregivers a glimpse into public school curriculum, and many didn’t like what they saw. Some approached local school boards with their concerns, with mixed success. Now, parents’ rights when it comes to local curriculum, fueled by hot-button topics such as critical race theory, have come to a head in many states. Education has become a defining issue in the Virginia governor’s race, where Governor Terry McAuliffe declared during one debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Parents like Whitney Scott disagree, embracing either a fully private education experience or a hybrid one that provides a combination of homeschooling and in-class instruction. Scott’s children attend Providence Academy in Rogers, Ark., where the school’s University Model offers classes two days a week (for elementary students) or three days a week (for secondary). On the alternating days at home, students work independently with supervision by the parent as needed.
“After trying homeschooling for four years, being able to have a curriculum laid out and having assistance with teaching more difficult subjects was a real bonus,” said Scott. “Also, we loved the idea that our kids would be spending more time with us. So much of the way children learn and grow is from the people they spend time with. We wanted those primary influences to be us, and people whose values we trusted.”
The expansion of Christian education will continue, experts predict, as the school choice movement expands and public schools are mired in conflicts related to curriculum, parental involvement, and cultural pressure.
“In the wake of COVID, the agility and relative strength with which private and Christian schools responded to challenges like virtual learning and scenario planning have brought these schools into the limelight in a way they were not before,” wrote Ferguson, of Grace Community School.
Decker, of College Heights Christian, agrees. “People are looking for an alternative to public education. They are looking for safe, moral environments where their students will be known, loved, and pushed academically.”