Wisconsin church school saved by vouchers

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When I was researching some local Wisconsin churches, I came across some interesting numbers for two churches only a few miles from one another. Both churches have around the same number of baptized members in the same affluent suburb, but one church has a higher weekly worship attendance. This should be an indicator of its relative health. In fact, I have found that many local Lutheran churches have a weekly worship attendance of around 25% of the total membership, but this one is at around 50%, so it's good. However, when you look at the two side-by-side in "Giving," you get a different picture.

Church Giving - No School   Church Giving - School

Wow, it looks as if Church #2 is getting a lot of money from somewhere, as in "Other Income." The answer is school vouchers. The church without a school is not receiving any state money, so all of the giving is based on members' gifts. However, the other church, which was getting close to throwing in the towel as a school, joined the Milwaukee and then Wisconsin voucher programs, and now all is good.

Keep in mind that the church IS responsible for educating more children, so it's not like the state is giving away free money. However, you can certainly see the allure for congregations that have closed schools or have underutilized facilities. The reason is that the religious school system used to have this model: charge tuition, pay teachers 75% of what public school teachers make, use church funds to fill holes. The new model is something like this: charge tuition (if applicable), pay teachers 75% of what public school teachers make, use government money to fill holes.

The fact is that churches can do fairly well with this new system, as long as the school culture does not change a lot because of the vouchers. Some of the local Milwaukee religious high schools know this problem all too well. If Wisconsin adopts an across-the-board voucher system, meaning every parent gets a voucher to use, then religious schools are poised to put many public schools out of business, since the biggest expense for school districts is teacher pay. On the other side, if Wisconsin pulls back on vouchers, limiting them again to only low-income and Milwaukee students, then the system will not really help church schools as much as one might think, since educating kids who are years behind in basic skills is labor-intensive.


The fact is that most teachers, public or private, who teach a certain grade or subject, are qualified to do so. Most of the challenge comes from the kids. Private schools have not proven they can provide a better education to low-income children, but they can provide the same education at a lower cost to the state. People don't generally like taxes, so vouchers are likely to last. But it's not a total fix for the problems of education, and it's not going to close any achievement gaps or inequalities. As long as we're all fine with that, then we'll get a system that will educate kids, add some moral education, and pretty much continue the status quo. Of course, some might argue that was the goal from the beginning.