Dr. Tim Van Soelen recently joined us for an interview on our podcast, The Teacher’s Lounge. Tim is the Executive Director of CACE, the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education. Tim has served as a math teacher and also an assistant administrator before starting CACE and is currently on the faculty of Dordt University. He’s married to Jill, who’s an instructional coach at Sioux Center Christian, and he and Jill have three children. And we plan to talk with Dr. Van Soelen today about CACE, his insights and observations into Christian education more broadly, and also about parent choice (commonly called school choice) in faith-based education today. To hear the full interview, join The Teacher’s Lounge podcast here.

Michael Arnold: Welcome, Tim. It’s nice to have you.

Tim Van Soelen: Thank you. It’s good to be with you.

Michael Arnold: Let’s start by just laying the foundation for parent choice. Why do you prefer that term? Why do you think it’s so important for educational leaders to be interested in that today?

Tim Van Soelen: It’s contagious right now, this idea of parental choice. I think there are 11 states right now that have what we would consider the best vehicle on the market, an educational savings account (ESA). It’s a savings account that goes directly to the parents, and the parents now have freedom in terms of how they’d like to use those dollars to educate their children.

I like the idea of “parent choice” rather than “school choice” because it puts the responsibility back into the hands of the parents, which is where I think it should belong. I think parents are best equipped to know where their child should be educated and what’s most tightly aligned with what happens at the home and at church and what the parents value and how that philosophy of education is going to fit with a menu of schools that they can choose from.

Michael Arnold: We want to dig into that more, but let’s get a little bit personal for those people who have not had a chance to meet you or haven’t had a chance to interact with you. Tell me a little bit about what excites you about education? What drew you to education in the first place?How did you get into the role that you’re in now, serving schools through CACE?

Tim Van Soelen: It’s been a really fun journey, and I think education was, as some people would say, in the blood. My dad was a high school principal. My mom was a school librarian, so I never got away with anything in school. That’s the way it was. It was interesting. My sister’s an educator and my brother’s an educator, so you can imagine the Sunday conversations were typically somewhat around an educational choice or an educational issue. But I think for me personally it switched when I was in college. I went to college as a business major. I was thinking I would go into accounting, but then had the opportunity to do some coaching at the local Christian school. And I fell in love with it and figured, hey, this is a lot more fun than sitting behind a desk and crunching numbers. And that’s nothing against those people who do that because I need them to do that! So I ended up being able to double-major in business and education.

And then Jill and I decided, Hey, let’s go for an adventure. So we went out to Southern California and taught at Redlands Christian School for eight years. I had the opportunity to get into some administrative work there. And then we came back to the Midwest.

I was the head of school at Calvin Christian School, which is now part of Sioux Falls Christian School. And during that time I had an opportunity to do some graduate level teaching at Dordt and enjoyed that as well. So a few years later, Dordt had a teaching opportunity open up and I had a chance to apply and then I received the chance to teach at the college level. So I’ve had the opportunity to teach from kindergarten through graduate school.

Probably about nine years ago we had some folks get together to talk about how we can do Christian education even better than how we’re doing it today. I think Christian schools have been so formational and foundational to communities for a long period of time, but we wanted to be able to raise the bar in terms of how Christian schools can be both distinctively Christian and academically excellent. How can we do that better? How can we partner with organizations like Curriculum Trak, and with other organizations too, to be able to provide resources for schools that are going to allow them to be better. And that’s when CACE started. So we started to work with Christian schools. We did cohorts of schools together. Now we work with individual schools. We do what we call strategic road mapping to help them envision a future five years from now.

We help schools with leadership searches if they’re looking for a new head of school or a principal or a director. We have a pretty good network of people because of the work that we do. So we try to help schools in that area as well.

Another service we do is marketing research and enrollment management with schools to help them make data-informed decisions about budgets and futures and enrollments. And then the fourth area in that bucket is what we call Operations, or Christian school operation services. So if schools need help with finances, with budgeting, with payroll services, things like that, we can provide those services for schools as well.

Michael Arnold: When it comes to CACE you’re also supporting the Teaching For Transformation Network. We interviewed Darryl DeBoer several months ago on the podcast, talking about Teaching For Transformation. So tell us a little bit about how that got pulled under the CACE umbrella.

Tim Van Soelen: One of the things that I’m very excited about for Christian schools today is the development of TfT and this growing network of schools that are contributing to this idea of what does it mean to teach for transformation? So we partnered with the Prairie Center for Christian Education, some wonderful educators out of Edmonton, Alberta, who had started trying to discover what it really means to teach Christianly and how we can do this even better from a pedagogical framework.

And so they created the through lines in TfT, things that we want our students to become, like justice-seekers and community-builders and beauty-creators, all things that we find woven throughout scripture. And we want to be able to weave those throughout the curriculum. Doug Monsma was the director of TfT back then, and he and Darryl DeBoer came to Dordt as part of a Christian Educators Journal Conference that we had at Dordt.

We got connected with them and just fell in love with the framework. So we helped a couple local schools get started because we wanted to see what it would be like. And then it turned out that the Prairie Center for Christian Education wanted CACE to be able to help by being almost like the franchisee in the United States. So that’s when we hired Darryl, Amanda Albright and all kinds of great people as our school designers. And I think next year we’ll have right around a hundred schools within the TfT network. I’m excited about how TfT can help create those learning experiences.

We talk about students being able to do real work with real people that have real needs. There’s a great quote from Nick Waltersdorf that says something like, It’s nothing but a pious wish and an unwarranted hope that students who are trained to be passive and non-creative in school will suddenly upon graduation go to actively contribute to the restorative work that God has invited all of us into. So we want that work to happen in K-12 schools. So that’s what TfT leads up to, that formational learning experience that they can participate in as a student.

Michael Arnold: That quote is really powerful because I think, without being derogatory towards educators in the public sphere, it does set up a juxtaposition between public education and Christian education, which is that most Christian schools want their students to graduate to live a life of influence. And I love the work that TfT is doing because it seeks to give students that experience and the framework to see life and the world from God’s perspective.

Tim Van Soelen: Absolutely. It’s this idea of, what does it mean that we are called to be part of God’s plan for restoration and reconciliation of all things? We are invited into that story. So how do we help students see God’s story, know God’s story, and then be part of living God’s story?

Michael Arnold: So, as you make observations about Christian education, some of the trends in education, and maybe even some of the challenges that Christian educators are facing, what would you say is the most encouraging to you right now? And what are you seeing that’s the most alarming?

Tim Van Soelen: I’ll start with things that I wonder about or that keep me up at night. The thing that kind of makes me wonder is the idea of what it means to be a sustainable, faith-based school, both sustainable in terms of mission, but also financially sustainable. As we continue to see growth in all the different sectors, we know that we’re going to have to continue to try to pay a good wage to retain, attract, and develop teachers. It just simply costs money. And to be able to do that in a way that still creates an accessible model for Christian parents is pretty challenging and is going to only become more challenging. So I think that figuring out that cost ratio, that structure, is going to be a challenge for Christian schools and that’s why I’m excited about things like ESA that help schools change how parents are paying for private education. I wonder about that.

I also wonder about all the social issues that find their way into classrooms. The challenges that have happened in the last five years, not simply COVID, but in the areas of race and politics and gender, we haven’t seen those before in schools to the extent that we do right now. I think God gives us what we need to wrestle with those and to be able to teach well. Every day teachers have to really struggle with those. How do I teach this content in a way that demonstrates who we are, who we’re called to be? How do I teach from our mission and vision in a way that also recognizes there’s differences of opinion on a lot of these topics?

Michael Arnold: And I think that the pressure that puts teachers on in the classroom to provide a safe place for learning in the midst of multiple competing views, combined with lower than cost-of-living wages in some cases, really has led to a lot of pressure in education right now to find teachers, to retain teachers. I was talking with some educators the other day, and we were talking about strategies to push teachers towards best practices or emerging practices. And one of the leaders said, “It’s not like we’re having teachers beat down our door to come and teach for us. It’s like we have to work with the people we have.”

How do you address that? How do you help schools who are just trying to fill classrooms?

Tim Van Soelen: Yeah, that’s a great question and I think that’s going to be a continuing question for the years to come. You used the word earlier: safe. That’s always the number one reason that we hear when we do interviews or research about why parents are choosing Christian schools. They want a safe place for their kids. And it is always about the teacher.

One of my favorite authors in education is a guy named Andy Hargreaves and he writes a piece called, “It’s the Teacher, Stupid.” Don’t overthink this. You have to have great teachers in schools because they are the ones that are influencing your kids every day. When we entrust our kids for seven hours a day to a teacher in elementary school, we don’t probably fully appreciate the influence or the impact that teacher has on the life of our child. And so we have to have great teachers.

When we talk with schools about this, we talk about how creative you can get with your teacher compensation packages. We see schools that have now bought apartment complexes next to the schools so that they can provide low income –I hate to say this, but teachers are low income, as you noted–housing for teachers. It’s a great benefit. Hopefully it allows a teacher to be able to save enough to be able to put down a down payment and afford a house someday.
We’re seeing loan forgiveness programs, we’re seeing teacher bonuses, we’re seeing a lot of things that we just never saw in the past when we had a supply that was enough to meet the demand.

Michael Arnold: So how do parent choice programs play into this picture that we’ve just described? How do you see that meeting that need?

Tim Van Soelen: I think it’s going to be a really critical component of figuring out what the cost of education is and what parents can pay. I’ll just give you an example. Schools in my neck of the woods probably charge $5,500, although the cost of education is about $8,000 per student.

So a parent may think it costs $5,500 to go to school, but they don’t realize that churches are kicking in, we’re doing fundraisers, we have a thrift store, we’re doing alternative revenue. All those kinds of things make up that gap between $5,500 and $8,000. The opportunity now for a family in Iowa to receive a $7,500 ESA and put that toward the cost of education might allow for schools to be able to put more money toward teacher compensation packages, to be able to do fundraisers for things that are outside the typical budget for new programs, new initiatives, building projects, things like that.

So we really hope that initiatives like that happen within states that are embracing parent choice, to allow Christian schools to become more sustainable, to create more financially sustainable models that point to the cost of education and allow parents and other vehicles to pay for that.

Michael Arnold: I think that being financially sustainable is really the key, even as parents are investing to send their kids to a private school. As they’re investing, they want to make sure that school will be around through at least their own child’s graduation.

Tim Van Soelen: I like that you used the word investing and I know that there are families that really honestly do sacrifice for their kids to go to the Christian school. I think for Jill and me, we always saw it as an investment. We knew we weren’t able to do some other things that maybe we might have wanted to do, but we felt like this was the investment that we wanted to make in our kids. We saw it as an eternal investment because it was so tightly aligned with who we were as a family and our church’s values and our commitment to our kids.

Michael Arnold: But then back to ESAs and parent choice, while that does help make that decision more sustainable, more accessible, and while it helps the schools who are doing great work and contributing to the community by turning out great students, not everyone’s excited about that. Not everyone gets on board with taking government money. And you talked about political pressures earlier and, oh boy, If we take money, then there are strings attached. So can you describe maybe some of the history of this, and the pros and cons, maybe even some of the pitfalls that you would recommend that schools avoid as they’re pursuing this?

Tim Van Soelen: There’s been an interesting history of parental choice and how the different vehicles have presented themselves to families. So if I go back to the nineties, we had the first charter school in St. Paul, Minnesota. So this offered the idea of open enrollment or even the idea that I can choose a different public school to be able to send my kids. That was the beginning of it, I think.

And then we started seeing more families kind of push for legislation around the idea that we might need a little more competition within schools to make sure that it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats. So you saw things like the voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and the DC Opportunity Choice programs where, based on need, families could qualify for a voucher. The challenge there was that the money did go directly to the school, so there was some government control over those dollars in terms of admissions programs and things that we hold near and dear in a lot of faith-based schools.

The next kind of vehicle we can look at was tuition tax credits, where if I donated toward a tuition tax organization, I could get state tax credits on that. So it was almost an 85% return on my investment, which became a really popular tool for a while. What I love about educational savings accounts is that the money goes to the parents. There really shouldn’t be any strings attached for states to pull with schools because the state is not giving any money directly to a private school; it’s giving it to the parent.

There’s always going to be a danger that the program could go away. How do we have better budgets that allow for contingency, for depreciation, for things that we maybe didn’t put in budgets before? Maybe we can now that we have some flexibility and can create more sustainable models so that if the program diminishes or goes away, we can still operate a sustainable school.

Michael Arnold: I’m sure the educational leaders within the state would be aware of whether or not their state has these programs, but do you know off the top of your head about how many states and which states do have ESAs, and which are heading towards that?

Tim Van Soelen: Yeah, there are 11 states right now, and I think Oklahoma’s got one that should pass. South Carolina just passed one. Utah, Arizona, Florida, Iowa. My favorite place to check on this is EdChoice, which used to be the Friedman Foundation. They have a beautiful map that shows all the states and the different types of school choice or parental choice programs that each state offers.

Michael Arnold: I’m sure I could probably predict the answer to this, but do you encourage people to become activists for their states to push them in this direction, and if so, how do you encourage them to do that?

Tim Van Soelen: Yeah, we believe that parents need to become better advocates for the educational options for their kids. And so there’s lots of different ways to do that. Throughout the nation there’s something called the Council for American Private Education.Most states have a CAPE organization that has a leadership team that would help move, that would do some lobbying. So be sure to support those types of organizations. The Catholic conferences in states are really good with their lobbying efforts, too.

But the best thing I think is getting to know your legislator and being able to tell the stories. Why does the fact that I have a choice matter for my son or daughter? One of the biggest advocates for it in the state of Iowa is a senator named Amy Sinclair who absolutely loves her public school and her kids are going to go to that public school. She just believes so strongly that the public school is the right fit for her kids, and I love that about Amy. But she also advocates for parents who think that isn’t the right choice for their child. Maybe instead it’s homeschool, maybe it’s a private school, maybe it’s a charter school. But just having the ability to choose is really important.

Michael Arnold: I know it seems like during the pandemic, a lot of parents’ eyes, including my own, were open to what’s happening in school. I think that was probably one of the most positive things, in my opinion, to come out of the pandemic, just the realization on the side of parents that this is our job. We are responsible here. We have to play an active role. And so I’ve been grateful to see parents step into their local board meetings, and seek to serve in a volunteer role in their local schools. And I think this is probably a good next step, as well as get involved in those states who are considering or not considering moving in this direction and try to shift the needle there.

Tim Van Soelen: I love that story, and I know you’re a great parent, but the fact that your eyes were open to it is just a great example. COVID was a perfect storm, to be honest, for school choice and for parental choice and for private schools and hopefully not in a way that has a long term negative impact on public schools.

The fact is, we saw a big difference in how schools responded and whether schools were really passionate about who they were serving and how they were serving them. Different states had different responses to it.

We have a tutoring center at Dordt where we work with students called the Thrive Achievement Center. We work with students who have reading comprehension issues or phonemic awareness issues, or maybe dyslexia. We have to do so much more tutoring now to respond to the COVID crisis. And intensive tutoring is really the only way for kids to catch up.

Michael Arnold: What is CACE doing to support schools who are pursuing the money that’s now available through Parental Choice and other programs like that? Describe your role a little bit at the CACE center and how you’re supporting schools.

Tim Van Soelen: We created an eight week course for administrators to take as they prepare for educational savings accounts to be implemented in their states. It includes things like:

  • How do we do three year budgets? Typically, a lot of these programs do phase in over three years until they get to what we call universal choice, where it’s simply available to all parents.
  • How do we do tuition modeling?
  • How do we do enrollment management funnels?
  • If this happens, how do we communicate this really well to our families, to our communities?
  • How do we work with our public schools well? How do we continue to work well as partners in educating the community, the kids in the community and do it really well together?

So we did that course this spring, and we’ll probably offer that again this fall for some other states that have just implemented the ESAs. We had about 250 faith-based school leaders at a symposium this fall in Iowa, where we had the governor’s office come, we had the director of education, we had our third party provider in Iowa that’s doing the financial work and we gathered those people together to share what they’re going to be doing. This is a conversation that requires the wisdom of the crowd. We can’t do this alone.

Michael Arnold: What would you tell educators right now in terms of encouragement and support?

Tim Van Soelen: Thanks for the good work you guys do at Curriculum Trak. I think you’re just another one of those great companies that are helping faith-based schools get better and you’re faithful at it.

So, that would be my first thing is to be faithful. We’re not always going to be successful and we know that we’re broken, but God calls us to be faithful in the work that we’re called to do. So, have you been faithful?

I remember interviewing a long time ago, and I asked the principal, “What are you looking for?” And he told me he was looking for three loves.

  1. Love what you teach. Be a content area expert.
  2. Love how to teach. Be a student of pedagogy.
  3. Love who you teach.You are called to be an unconditional lover of the kids in your classroom on their good days and their worst days.

How do you develop those three loves? Reflect on those as you enter into summer, and then refresh! Do something – get away from school for a while– so that you can come back in the fall and just be ready to rock and roll again.

Michael Arnold: Thanks for being with us today, Tim. We wish you all the best as you continue your efforts through CACE.

Tim Van Soelen: Thanks, Michael. I appreciate this opportunity.