Are Christian Schools Elitist?

Guest Article: Mark Kennedy, ACSI Canada

Money bills dollars stack

“Why, that’s like charging people for God!!” That’s what one outraged lady said when I told her families at our school had to pay tuition. It’s not an uncommon sentiment with those who believe that public school education is free or with people who cling to the pseudo-Christian philosophical canard, ‘If it’s cheap and easy it must be from God.”

More reflective thinkers would realize that, apart from tuition, there aren’t a lot of financial resources out there with which Christian schools can pay bills and salaries. So we have to charge tuition, whether we like it or not. It isn’t that we’re trying to limit enrollments to the economically advantaged or that we’re fending off the ‘hoi-polloi’ by pricing our schools beyond their reach. Most Christian school people aren’t elitists. But we do want first rate teachers and outstanding, God-honouring school programmes. And those things cost.

Setting Tuition

 Over my past 35 years in Christian school leadership I’ve learned some worthwhile things, more than a few of them I learned the hard way. Take the business of setting tuition.

I used to think that Christian schools should set their tuition as low as possible so we could be accessible to just about any family. It was a charitable thought and, since I was an audacious, rather than sagacious, administrator, that’s just what I did at our school.  The results were disturbing.

Lower income families didn’t flock to the school. The percentage of families not returning from one year to the next remained about the same. And, because of inflation, each year we had less money to pay teachers and improve programmes. So ill-paid staff and a few committed parents inevitably found themselves under enormous pressure to do more and more fundraising. It wasn’t fundraising for new equipment or buildings – the kind of projects that can unify and enliven a school community.  It was ‘bailing bucket’ fundraising, ‘please keep us from sinking’ fundraising, ‘here we are on the brink of disaster once again’ fundraising. And it wore us all out.

Not only that, but our modest tuition didn’t curry much favour outside the school community either –where, in most people’s thinking, low cost equals low value. It’s a standard North American message about any product or service: quality costs.

And wealthy folk who could have made substantial donations to ministries like ours, never did. That’s because financially successful people, especially people from the business community, reach their position through careful planning – which includes appropriately pricing their products and services. They set their prices to be comfortably higher than their operating costs, their income to exceed expenses and they look for the same from any ministries they might consider supporting. People don’t give generously to schools that are annually on the verge of extinction.

That should speak to us. In the interest of providing an effective ministry for our students and reasonable salaries for teachers we need to set tuition high enough to comfortably exceed operating costs. The prospect of doing that is pretty daunting for principals and board members. What if families pull out?! What if we go broke and have to close?!!! In the past 10 years I’ve seen a fair number of Christian schools close in our region –too many. Most of them died with agonizing slowness, trying to keep their tuition ‘as low as possible to make the school financially accessible to working families.’ They would have at least had a chance to survive if they’d set their tuition high enough to more than pay their expenses.

Raising tuition to an appropriate level can be done without creating a disaster. Here are 5 steps to accomplishing that goal:

  1. Calculate what tuition income you would need to pay your expenses with at least a 10% surplus.
  2. Educate school families in the concept that Christian schooling is a shared sacrifice.  Parents aren’t the only people who pay for their children’s Christian education. Most of our teachers and principals are making huge financial sacrifices too. They choose to earn salaries 25% to 50% less than they could earn in public education so they can teach God’s truth freely to their students thereby equipping those students well for life. And our board members work for free! Maybe that’s the way it should be. Sacrificing to bless others, especially our own families, isn’t something strange for Christians. According to Jesus it is central to our faith.

“If anyone would come after me he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34

Christian school leaders have the daunting financial responsibility of making that ‘shared sacrifice’ equitable for parents and school staff as well.

  1. Educate parents in the relationship between tuition income and the ability to enhance programmes and improve equipment and facilities.
  2. ‘Grandfather’ current families by raising tuition to the ideal level in consistent annual increments over a defined number of years (5 or less).
  3. For new families, have a higher tuition rate to begin with.

But if we keep tuition low won’t the Lord’s miraculously provide to meet our financial needs? It does happen, especially in places like Haiti. I’ve seen it. The Lord sometimes provides for the poorest of his people in astounding ways. He does that in North America too but it doesn’t seem to be as common here. It seems that, in Canada, one of the wealthiest nations in all history, God treats Christian school leaders like toddlers learning to walk. In our first few years he intervenes on our behalf, figuratively holding us up when in our financial innocence or naivety we trip up.  But as we mature he seems to expect us to maintain our balance by applying biblical wisdom, guidance from others and lessons from our own experiences. And sometimes he allows us to stumble painfully so in the long run we can learn to stand.

What about our responsibility to “widows and orphans”? Both the Old and New Testament tell believers to care for ‘widows and the orphans’. For us in Christian schools, that means we have a responsibility to help families that share our beliefs but can’t afford our tuition.  Some schools address that responsibility by filling empty classroom seats with students from families that can only pay a fraction of the tuition. That’s a sensible short term plan with a serious long term flaw. It gives everyone the illusion that the school is doing well. After all, look at all the students! The reality may be that a lot of the students are on some sort of unfunded, reduced tuition plan and that the school is struggling with a steadily increasing deficit. Inviting low income families into a financially troubled school eventually becomes a bit like inviting struggling swimmers onto a sinking ship – not a good long term solution for the swimmers or the ship’s passengers. It is far better for a school to direct part of its fundraising efforts to a scholarship/tuition assistance programme. People like to give to that sort of thing. The goal is to eventually limit bursaries to the amount of real money in the tuition assistance fund.

When it comes to providing for needy people, maybe we should borrow a philosophy from the airline industry. The pre-flight safety instructions always say, “In the event of an emergency, make sure to put on your own oxygen mask first, before you attempt to help others.” They’re not advising a ‘me first’ selfishness, they’re simply saying you need stability in order to help others effectively. I think that’s what Paul meant in Hebrews 12:12,

“Therefore strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level the paths for your feet so that the lame may not be disabled, but healed.”

A few months ago I got a phone call from a fellow Upper Canada College ‘old boy’. After trying unsuccessfully to pry support out of me, he passed on some fascinating information. It seems that at Upper Canada College, where tuition starts at $28,000 and there’s a huge student waiting list, 25% of the tuition, (“only 25%” he said), comes from bursary funds donated by people like me. “We want to increase that percentage,” he explained, “because in the States the average ‘elite’ school receives 45% of tuition from donated bursaries!”

Now I’m not suggesting that our schools take on the airs or the tuition rates of elite private schools. But we could at least follow their example by making sure tuition more than covers operating costs and by raising bursary/tuition assistance funds to support lower income families. And there’s nothing elitist about that!