Tri-City ghosts: School vouchers raise the possibility of diverting money into abusive faith communities
The November election may prove to be a pivotal moment for the school-choice movement. President Donald Trump selected Betsy DeVos, a longtime supporter of school vouchers, as his secretary of education. Eric Greitens, Missouri’s new governor, has promoted education savings accounts, which public school educators say are vouchers in disguise.
The enthusiasm for vouchers does not match the results. Studies in states with the most extensive programs indicate that vouchers are not helping students. The most recent study, in Ohio, found that students who used vouchers to attend private schools actually fared worse on statewide tests than students who stayed in public schools.
In addition to questionable academic outcomes, vouchers in some instances divert public money into private, religious schools. The risks in this are evident in the experiences of former students at a now-closed conservative Christian school in the Kansas City area, who spoke to The Pitch about the spiritual, physical and sexual abuse they suffered.
Even among Christian schools in Kansas City, Tri-City Christian School was known to be strict. Students received demerits for listening to rock music. Movie theaters were off-limits. The cheerleaders wore turtlenecks and skirts that fell to their shins.
Tim Sears, who graduated from Tri-City Christian School in 1987, was troubled as a teenager. Later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he would ask classmates to hit him. He was struggling to process abuse he experienced at home. His father beat his mother, who in turn beat him and his brothers. “I was a pretty screwed-up kid,” he says.
Sears, who is gay, was also experimenting sexually, a fact he kept hidden at home and at school.
Sears says his father, who worked at the post office and preached on Sundays at a storefront church, thought that he and his brothers would benefit from Tri-City’s emphasis on obedience. To Sears, though, the school’s leaders seemed more interested in enforcing rules than in meeting the students’ needs. During one interrogation in the school office, Sears admitted that he listened to rock music. He received 50 demerits and was told he would be expelled if he committed the sin again.
“There was no counseling, no trying to understand what was going on in my life,” Sears says, “just a desire to punish and reprimand and fulfill the letter of the Tri-City law.”