In response to the COVID pandemic, teachers’ unions closed public schools and kept them closed — in some cases spanning three school years — while doubling down on a radical political agenda. A great parent awakening ensued, triggering a mass public school exodus starting in 2020. Since then, demand for traditional, non-politicized K-12 options has continued to grow. With surging admissions applications and growing enrollment numbers, K-12 Christian schools are among those benefiting from this movement.
The uptick in Christian school demand was dramatic, a near-overnight change from the steady enrollment downturn trend dating back through the 1990s, which bottomed out around the 2008 recession.
Christian schools did not have to reinvent themselves to make this rebound; parental outrage over what was taking place in district schools supplied most of the needed motivation. Nonetheless, despite increased demand for traditional Christian schools, it’s vital for the leaders of these schools to learn and improve from years, even decades, of waning enrollments.
It’s time to reevaluate the Christian school business model, identifying areas where practices in other industries can be utilized to strengthen operations, reduce costs, and improve quality. The best place to gain insight is the charter school sector, particularly the charter school management approach. With a nearly 20-year history of success, it offers valuable practices that Christian schools can learn from.
The Charter School Management Approach
Free of much of the bureaucratic interference saddling traditional public schools, charter schools allow for a more nimble and responsive public education option. Over recent decades, thousands of single, standalone charter schools have formed. But many of these schools have found it challenging to operate efficiently and effectively.
The complexity of school operations — from recruitment to HR, marketing to legal support — matched with limited financial and personnel resources leads to more responsibilities falling on the shoulders of fewer people, many ill-equipped to handle multiple specialized job functions. While the standalone school model localizes control, allowing for careful oversight of a school’s culture and direction, it also has drawbacks. For example, it has left many schools without the expertise, support, cost-saving opportunities, and quality back-office services that a larger network of schools offers.
Charter management organizations (CMOs) and education management organizations (EMOs) are nonprofit entities that manage charter schools. These organizations were formed throughout the early 2000s to provide operational support to charter schools by incorporating effective principles from the private sector. These network-based charter operators identified business-driven, enterprise-level operational solutions that can improve the individual elements of a school. CMOs & EMOs recognized that consolidating key service areas could strengthen classrooms and schools without diminishing their distinctiveness.
Despite geographical and demographic differences, most Christian schools share deep commitments around faith, culture, and the proper formation of young hearts and minds. Teaching truth from a biblical worldview, fostering Christian character development in their students, providing service-learning opportunities, and prioritizing a partnership with parents are core elements that unite most Christian schools. Yet, Christian schools have remained largely isolated from each other.
Too many Christian school leaders are overwhelmed by operational demands, desperate for more support. Large third-party firms that offer back-office operational support for small businesses don’t understand the nuances of the education sector, and most hold views of the human person and society that directly conflict with the principles of Christian education. The various education associations that support Christian schools tend to focus more on generalized policy and professional development, which don’t address operational needs.
Among the few entities in the Christian school world that seek to provide back-office services at some scale, most have tended to offer a truncated, shared-service platform, focusing primarily on new school development rather than ongoing operational support.
While some single-operator Christian schools, whether independent or church-affiliated, have proved effective, many more would benefit from joining a thoughtfully sized, meaningfully integrated network with other Christian schools. Sharing intentionally structured services to support an aligned mission would yield operational effectiveness, efficiency, and reduced costs. While the model can be adapted from charter school organizations, it would not be identical.
Parents will gravitate to what they believe is best for their children. As the failures of secular education continue to motivate parents to choose Christian schools, Christian school leaders need to find ways to build effective models to meet the demand. The downward enrollment trend that plagued Christian schools for decades cannot be forgotten or merely chalked up to the changing priorities of parents.
A well-worded statement of faith, a biblically aligned curriculum, and a charismatic school leader are all important, but these will not replace the need for well-run operations, which directly affect students, parents, and employees, as well as the school’s bottom line. By drawing existing Christian schools (especially smaller, independent schools located in the same region) into a management organization, Christian school leaders can begin to love their operations as much as they love their missions — and build a thriving future.