Opinion: Lighthouse Christian School Uses Voucher Program to Serve Minority Students Well

Opinion: Lighthouse Christian School Uses Voucher Program to Serve Minority Students Well

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The nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education brought about plenty of protests across the country, heated confirmation hearings, two rounds of voting, and plenty of social media criticism.  One main reason why many are against her is because she is a big supporter of private Voucher schools or Charter schools; something that many see as detrimental to the public education system in the nation.  

A little over a week after DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education, the Wisconsin State Journal reported on the proposed expansion of Lighthouse Christian School, the only private school in Dane County that participates in the Wisconsin Parental Choice (Voucher) Program.  Lighthouse Christian School has an accepted offer to purchase a property located at 6400 Schroeder Road in the neighborhood behind Woodman’s West, between Whitney Way and Gammon Rd.  The new location would allow Lighthouse Christian School, which serves mostly low-income minority students, to grow to a full capacity of 260 students in grades 4k through 8.  

Currently, Madison has the worst achievement gap between minority students and white students in the nation.  Test scores from the Madison Metropolitan School District showed that only 11 percent of Black students in third through fifth grade were reading at grade level; the percentage for Hispanics was not much better at only 15 percent. The percentage of White students that are reading at grade level is 56, which is not great either, but more than 40 percent higher than their minority classmates.  These percentages reflect greatly in the number of minority students that graduate from high school compared to White students which in turn affects the overall advancement of the community.

After reading these statistics, why is it controversial that a voucher school who serves mostly low-income minority students is looking to expand?  Is it because it’s a voucher school?  Could it be because it’s a Christian School?  Or would it have something to do with the fact that it’s a school that serves mostly low-income minority families?

Let me tell you some facts about Lighthouse Christian School and when I am done, you draw your own conclusions.

Lighthouse Christian School is a ministry of Lighthouse Church, a bilingual, non-denominational, international church on the west side of Madison.  More than half of the congregation of Lighthouse Church is Hispanic, with families representing every country in Latin America and Spain.  The rest of the congregation is a mixture of White, African American, African, and Asian members.

About 12 years ago, some members of the congregation, mostly Hispanic, approached the leadership of the church with concerns about their children going to the public schools in Madison; they felt that minority students were not progressing at the expected level.  They wanted their children to attend a private Christian School, but they could not afford to pay the tuition.  It was then that Lighthouse Church decided to open a private Christian school that would serve low-income families and address the concerns that many minority families had regarding the education of their children.  Lighthouse Christian School started in 2004 with a total enrollment of 21 students; the vast majority were Hispanic and African American, and tuition was only $230 per month with available discounts for families with more than one child attending.

Because of the low tuition costs, for nine years, Lighthouse Church had to cover a great part of the expenses of the Lighthouse Christian School.  Even though it was a sacrifice for the congregation, they felt that it was a good thing to invest in the lives of those children.  The low tuition costs made it very difficult for Lighthouse Christian School to invest in a newer and more efficient building, to have access to technology, good quality furniture, and hire the necessary staff to be able to run the school more efficiently.  In spite of all that, the school continued to grow every year, and the children were able to receive a good quality education; the lack of resources didn’t deter the staff from offering an excellent education to students.

It was in 2013 that Governor Walker allowed for the Wisconsin Parental Choice (Voucher) Program to expand in cities other than Milwaukee and Racine, and Lighthouse Christian School saw this as an opportunity to be able to serve more low-income minority students while at the same time being able to afford the resources necessary for an excellent education.

Lighthouse Christian School was the only school in Dane county who went through the long process of applying for the voucher and in that same year, they had 10 voucher students attending their school.  The following year the number of voucher students grew to 30, and this year they have a total of 57 students who benefit from the voucher; eight of those are special needs students.

In order to qualify for a voucher, a family needs to be at 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level ($44,955 or below for a family of 4).  Each student, K-8, that qualifies for the voucher receives a scholarship of $7,323 per year that goes to pay for the cost of his/her education.  For special needs students, the amount is higher — $12,000 per student.  In 2013-2014, the state’s average per pupil revenue for public schools was around $12,705.

When a student leaves the public school system in order to go to a voucher school, the State takes the money that was assigned to that child and gives it the voucher School where he/she is going to attend, except that the voucher school gets $5,000 less than what the public school was getting.  Also, the public school does get to keep a portion of that amount even when the student no longer attends the school.

It’s not that voucher schools takes money away from public education, but rather, the student takes the money that has being assigned to him or her and brings it to a school of his or her choice.  Since the families have to be low-income in order to qualify, it has been mostly minority families that have taken advantage of the program.

Currently, Lighthouse Christian School has 95 students from 4k – 6.  Of those, 48 percent are Hispanic, 27 percent are African American, and the rest are White or Asian. Sixty nine of those students come from low-income families with the majority of them participating in the free or reduced lunch program.

Test scores show that not every voucher school has been successful and there are voucher schools that are performing poorly.  But Lighthouse Christian School’s test scores show that their students are outperforming MMSD students and minority students across the state.

Because of the size of the facility where Lighthouse Christian School meets today, the school cannot continue to grow since it has reached its capacity.

The vision of Lighthouse Christian School is “to teach and inspire all our children to become devoted disciples of Jesus and to enthusiastically pursue their God-given potential in the classroom, home, neighborhood and the world.”  

Lighthouse Christian School stands firm on its commitment to excellence; commitment to inclusiveness and diversity; commitment to teaching and modeling Christian values; and commitment to transparency and accountability.  Lighthouse Christian School doesn’t hide the fact that they are Christian, but at the same time, their school is open to any family that desires to send their children to the school.  Lighthouse sees the need for good quality education for minority children and the voucher has allowed them to offer that to those who often don’t have the choice to move to a different neighborhood, school district, or enroll in private education.  Unfortunately, most of the minority families do not have a say or a choice in their education.  The vouchers has given these families a choice and a say.

Lighthouse Christian School is not trying to compete against public schools, but rather, offer an alternative to those families who feel that public school is not the best option for their children.

Tia Sierra, the Principal and Founder of Lighthouse Christian School, understands that Lighthouse School is not for everyone, just like public schools are not for everyone either.  But, for those who feel the need to send their children to Lighthouse, there is now a choice regardless of income, race, background, or even religious belief.

Moving the school to a new, bigger location will provide more opportunity for other low-income minority students to take advantage of what Lighthouse Christian School has to offer; excellent education, Spanish Immersion program and Mandarin classes, small class sizes, a loving staff who desires to not only teach the student but serve their parents, and good Christian values.

One thing that many people don’t understand is that minority families are families who put great value on their faith in God.  Religion is a very important part of their upbringing and as such, having access to a school that is affordable and teaches Christian values is a great blessing for many minority families in the community.

Lighthouse Christian School has one agenda only; to raise and equip a great army of children, mainly those who have been falling by the cracks, to live a full life as Jesus lived in order to help them excel and become great contributors to society.

From the moment that Lighthouse Christian School became a voucher school, many people in Madison have had their criticism about the school.  Those who are against it have focused on the fact that it’s a religious school, or that it’s voucher school that in the long run will hurt public schools, and there are those who are against it simply for the fact that the Voucher Program is something that Scott Walker or the conservative party have supported.  No one from those who oppose Lighthouse Christian School has said anything about the students that Lighthouse Christian School is serving, the test scores that have proven that minority students at Lighthouse Christian School are outperforming both MMSD and statewide students, no one has spoken to the parents of these students to hear testimony about how their children have achieved goals that they didn’t think they could achieve so quick, or the fact that Lighthouse Christian School employs a high percentage of minority staff in order to show the students that they can become great.  It seems as if a lot of the talk has had to do with politics and not societal measurements of success.  Lighthouse Christian School’s desire is to be the vehicle that families, especially low-income minority families, use in order to become everything that God wants them to be.  There is a way in which the achievement gap in Madison can be reduced.  But in order for that to happen, Private Schools, Public Schools, Voucher Schools, and Charter Schools will have to work together and give minority students a choice.  Lighthouse Christian School doesn’t claim to be the solution to the problem, but does believe that it is part of that solution.

Written by Marcio Sierra

Marcio Sierra is President and Senior Pastor at Lighthouse Church.

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