The Lutheran parochial school system, one of the most extensive in the U.S. aside from the Catholics and the Seventh Day Adventists, is in crisis, not only due to the long-term demographic shift from urban areas to the suburbs, but also because of these schools’ loss of their Lutheran identity, writes Paul Robert Sauer in the Lutheran Forum magazine (Fall).
After the Catholic Church and the Seventh Day Adventists, Lutherans, particularly in the Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod, have maintained the largest parochial school in the U.S., and, like the Catholics, have faced sharp declines in enrollments and the number of schools in recent years. Sauer reports that since 2003, the number of Lutheran elementary schools has declined from 1,036 to 945. Last year nine Lutheran high schools closed, and five more are slated to shut their doors after the end of the 2010 school year.
The ones that have remained open are under serious financial duress, particularly urban schools—nearly all the Lutheran schools in Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York have either closed or are in danger of closing. The Lutheran exodus from cities, which has been taking place for decades, explains only part of this decline. Sauer writes that there is also a “diminishing brand identity among the Lutheran schools. Whereas poorer families with lifelong connections to the Lutheran church might make the financial sacrifices necessary to send their children to a Lutheran school, the populations who have replaced those Lutherans might share the initial poverty of those who left but lack the deep-seated connection to Lutheranism.”
For such families, the current economic crisis has moved Lutheran education, and parochial education in general, into the “non-essential expenditure category.” There is also a shortage of teacher candidates, with the Concordia university system cutting back on education programs, which were once its strongest field. Sauer adds that those schools that have managed to stay open—usually in urban areas—find themselves with predominantly non-Lutheran students and even teachers and staff.
Sauer adds, however, that such investment in urban schooling has led to students moving into church life, especially if the congregation is intentional about such a development. He sees another possibility in Lutheran charter schools, though that may also curtail any religious content being offered.
(Lutheran Forum, P.O. Box 327, Delhi, NY 13753-0327)