Christian Academy of Indiana has a sprawling 60-acre campus in New Albany. New buildings, smooth parking lots and lush landscaping.
“It certainly creates competition,” says Dennis Brooks, who is superintendent of the local public school system, New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated Schools. “It certainly makes me aware each day that parents have choices.”
Brooks says the Protestant school’s growth has not gone unnoticed. The school formed when two large churches decided that their burgeoning schools could be better managed as part of Christian Academy of Louisville.
But the growth of Christian schools has now turned, and stories swirl about declining enrollment from Christian school administrators.
Sara Hauselman is the principal of Rock Creek Christian Academy in Sellersburg. During the ‘90s, the enrollment increased by 30 percent. Now, she says it’s falling.
“Most people are saying it’s the same thing,” Hauselman says. “It’s the economy. They’re not losing their kids to other private schools or Christian schools. They’re losing them to public schools because their parents can’t afford to pay the tuition.”
Of course, the poor economy is to blame. But so are the mounting expenses of running a school — everything from teachers’ salaries to outfitting classrooms and libraries with computers.
Ken Smitherman is the president of the Association of Christian Schools International, which has more than 5,000 Protestant Christian member schools. He remembers when the upward trend ended.
“We began noticing about five years ago that our number of schools was flattening off and if anything beginning to decrease,” Smitherman says.
And that translates into the loss of needed tuition dollars.
“Our schools are driven by tuition and fees that are paid for by individuals,” Smitherman says. “You know, the whole government funding thing just simply does not occur in this country except on some very minutely limited aspect.”
Talk of supporting religious schools with public money was in the limelight after President George W. Bush was first elected. Then Christian school administrators advocated the idea of vouchers, where parents can designate the public expenditure for their children’s education to go to a chosen school.
Columbia University’s Teachers College professor Pearl Kane studies private schools. She says the economy could spur action.
“The financial constraints that families are facing might give rise to renewal of activism for vouchers for religious schools,” Kane says.
Some experts say government support of a voucher system with religious school participation is a lost cause. Peter Cookson wrote “School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education.”
“I think the issue of taking public dollars and supporting religious schools is extremely volatile,” Cookson says. “I’m sure that there will be and continue to be a lot of lawsuits around that. And I don’t frankly don’t think there’s a huge future for religious schools in that.”
In recent years, publicly funded voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida have been embroiled in lawsuits.
University of Notre Dame education expert David Sikkink says the current economy may force schools to experiment.
“The economic downturn is going to put so much pressure on a number of the conservative Protestant schools that they’ll be more open to accepting some kind of assistance from the government, especially if it’s indirect through parents,” Sikkink says.
That could take the form of a tax credit for parents who send their kids to private schools. But Sikkink also says the situation could encourage Christian schools to reduce the role of religion in their programs. Rock Creek Christian Academy is exploring charter school status with the state of Indiana. It would bring public funding to the school but require it to drop its religious curriculum.
Sikkink and other experts agree the economic crisis doesn’t mean the disappearance of Christian schools, but declining enrollments could mean they have less influence in education policy.