When We Were On Fire

synchroblog-photohome_uk

No blogger would be complete if not for the inspiration of other, more talented bloggers. This post spurted forth from exactly that sort of inspiration. Addie Zierman is brilliantly promoting her upcoming memoir When We Were On Fire with a ‘synchroblog‘ regarding the title’s subject matter. It may not communicate with the same skill as Addie’s new book, but here is my contribution to the discussion.

I recently celebrated yet another birthday, marking my seventh year as a ‘twenty-something,’ so I suppose it is high time for some reflection that rarely makes its way into written word. It also marks my twelfth year as a committed Christ follower—so we will see how that affects said reflection. In order to give some focus to this piece, the reflection will revolve around when I was ‘on fire’ for God.

Since being a Christian, I have been through three distinct life stages: high school, college, and post-college. I attended a public high school, went to Moody Bible Institute for college, and am now doing post-bac online courses at a community college. Interestingly enough, I reflect back on my high school days more than on my college ones, both in terms of fond memories and in terms of my zeal for God.

Not that college was to the contrary; it was an amazing experience filled with friends, joy, biblical understanding, prayer, life lessons, and marriage! Yet, when I reflect on the stories frequently brought to memory or on times I felt closest to God and most challenged in my spiritual growth, my high school years still win out.

Even more interestingly, my faith in high school still suffered from innocent ignorance of all the Bible had to offer in terms of theology and guidance for daily living as well as a lack of experience in apologetics. Yet those years enjoyed the most engaging conversations, the most outreach to non-Christian friends, the most fervor for God’s kingdom. Why would this be lacking after accomplishing a Bible degree? Why would my extra years of experience somehow diminish my engagement?

My first inclination is to use my years of experience as a crutch. I have grown up and no longer have a mere ‘faith like a child.’ My perceptions have matured and I have developed more realistic expectations about faith and life in general. Luckily, my second inclination is to reject my first inclination as a cop-out. My third inclination is to spiritualize my situation and find camaraderie with the Pharisees. Now I can understand their draw toward legalism, their rationale for compartmentalizing the dynamic truths of God into neat and tidy chunks that sound great on first impression, but are only useful for making excuses for the lack of a true relationship with our Lord.

And that is just it. My years of experience have only developed my ability to make excuses, to find loopholes in the system that allow my inner laziness to spread its fat girth out on the couch. No wonder Jesus has no more room to stand beside me! Thus, my fourth inclination that berates me for my excuses also invites me back to the innocence of pre-inclinations, to a time before I felt entitled to revel in my spiritual understanding, to a time before I thought I had my faith all figured out, to a time when I simply loved Jesus because He first loved me and I could do nothing else but proclaim that truth.

During my high school years I didn’t understand the significance of inerrancy, know the five points of TULIP, or realize the archetypal significance of the book of Leviticus. What did I know? I knew that God went through a whole lot of trouble to make sure I was redeemed and I had significance and that it was Jesus who made it happen.

Now, in my post-college stage, the trick is to make sure I integrate the knowledge I gleaned from college with the fire I had in high school; to understand that no matter how much I have learned about the Bible, theology, and Christian living, true spirituality is realizing I have never left square one. Was was square one (the ‘pre-inclination’ stage)? Oh yes! The admission that I need a savior, and so does everyone else.

When we were on fire, we were humble before God and desired for others to enjoy the mercy of that realization as well. Hopefully, as we get older, we can use our experience to be more intentional and creative with that desire, rather than use the experience to fabricate more complicated excuses to avoid it.

#WWWoF

Advertisements

ACSTO Values

[Content was a featured post on ACSTO’s ‘News & Updates’ blog on 10/25/12.
Click for blog link here.]

<Forward: I truly enjoyed writing this blog as the opening post for ACSTO’s new ‘News & Updates’ site. Sure it fits into the Blogging and Technical Writing skill categories, but it delves further into writing prowess than that. This is a Visionary statement, revealing what makes the heart of the organization beat. Writing in such a way as to accurately ‘wear your emotions on your sleeve’ requires intimate knowledge of your audience and what motivates them as well as the mission of the organization and any procedural requirements. The end result should show how they harmoniously overlap.>

0e1832289_acsto-banner

Here at ACSTO, Christian private schools are our passion.  It is hard to think of what could be better than seeing children raised up in an educational environment tailored to their needs and founded on Christian principles.  That is why our mission, day in and day out, is to help these schools succeed.  This mission forms the basis for our values, for how and why ACSTO operates the way that it does.

We accomplish this mission through the effective implementation of Arizona’s individual tuition tax credit laws.  These laws authorize taxpayers to donate to School Tuition Organizations (STOs) like ACSTO and we are able to award that money as tuition scholarships to students attending private schools in Arizona.  For their donation taxpayers are then able to receive a dollar-for-dollar credit against their Arizona income tax for that year, up to the annual maximum, or their actual tax, whichever is less.

So while our mission is clear, taxes are known for being quite muddy.  That is why ACSTO is available for questions regarding how the tax credit works, how we operate, and how you can be involved.  However, we are not tax consultants, so we always recommend you speak with your CPA regarding your specific situation.  Because of the complexities in these laws there is an unfortunate amount of misinformation out there.  ACSTO strives to be a source of accurate and reliable information.  We are tuned in to legislative developments, are very familiar with tax credit law, closely follow school choice news and research, have a lot of excellent resources available on our website, conform all our organizational procedures and by-laws to current law, and maintain precise records for our students and donors.

In addition to being a source of accuracy, ACSTO understands the need for stability.  Many challengers are not afraid to yell at their opposition from the rooftops, taking every opportunity to ‘discredit’ the program.  That is why ACSTO has stood at the forefront of legal challenges to the tax credit program that have lasted since is inception in 1998 and only recently put to rest in our favor by the United States Supreme Court in ACSTO v. Winn in early 2011.  From time to time during that legal challenge opponents used poorly phrased slogans and poorly implemented procedures of some STOs to bring the credibility of the program under suspicion.  Therefore, everything that an STO does should be done with careful consideration.  All literature, solicitations, websites, and even operational procedures tell a story.  What you imply is just as dangerous as what you say outright.

We can summarize the need for stability in two parts: 1) as a financially oriented organization, we need to be trustworthy; 2) as an organization firmly rooted in tax credit laws, we need to be legally sound.

If you are ever in a position where you are asking why ACSTO does what it does, or why it chooses to operate a certain way, you question is mostly likely answered by one of two reasons: 1) ACSTO strives to be a source of accuracy or 2) ACSTO understands the need for stability.  It is our firm belief that these two principles are the best way to ensure that the tax credit laws are effectively utilized and survive any and all opposition.  It is important to protect the tax credit laws because they protect our private Christian schools and they provide much needed assistance for parents and children.  That, in turn, fulfills our mission.

What is School Choice?

[Content was a featured post on ACSTO’s ‘News & Updates’ blog on 11/18/12.
Click for blog link here.]

0e1832277_school

School choice is loaded with layers of meaning. It reaches far and wide into all forms of American education.  It refers to evaluation of educational systems. It calls for legislative policy reforms. It asks that parents be more involved in the process of their child’s education and which type of schooling they will receive. It demands the freedom of the free market enterprise to govern supply and demand in the education sector, instead of government regulation.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice summarizes school choice concisely, calling school choice “a common sense idea…encouraging healthy competition among schools and other institutions to better serve students’ needs and priorities [and] a public policy that allows parent/guardian or student to choose a district, charter, or private school, regardless of residence and location.

School choice is more than just competition among schools however. The second half of school choice is geared to affordability. Public districts may be free, but alternative forms of education are not. Most families cannot afford to pay for public schooling in taxes, and pay again in private school tuition. For this reason, school choice is synonymous with school vouchers, tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and individual tax credits and deductions. Without these methods in place to help families afford these educational alternatives, the school choice movement would be hard pressed.

Even though our service is specific to tax credit scholarships for private school students, ACSTO supports all forms of school choice. We don’t pretend to know what is best for children’s education. Our goal is to ensure that parents, when properly informed and given the financial capability, are able to choose whether private schooling is best for their children.

Interested in finding out more?

We’ve compiled a list of resources, articles, and lists of organizations to
help you understand what school choice is all about! Learn More!

A Lesson from Louisiana

[Content was a featured post on ACSTO’s ‘News & Updates’ blog on 01/29/13.
Click for blog link here.]

0e1832555_louisianagovernor1

You may have noticed on the news recently, that we are currently in the middle of National School Choice Week. Some people see school choice as a fight between private and public schooling and a lobby for who gets the most state money. But it is nothing so political as that.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has a great take on the issue. He agrees that school choice should not be a political, partisan issue, but rather, a consensus issue. He presses that “equal opportunity in education shouldn’t be a conservative position, or a liberal position, it should be an American position.”

To oppose schools choice is to choose “an old antiquated centralized approach that is not working.” It puts political and monetary incentives ahead of the needs of our children. Likewise, those who claim that American education is fine deserve equal criticism. Jindal insists that “it is completely dishonest to pretend today that America provides equal opportunity in education. We do not.”

Too many students around the country are still stuck at failing schools. We need to provide an equal opportunity for poor and disadvantaged children in America to receive an education they can be proud of.

That is why school choice is about the children; it is about meeting their needs in an affordable way; it is about anequal opportunity for an outstanding education. Equal opportunity does not mean more regulation and spending. Equal opportunity “is driven by competition, accountability and autonomy.” Nothing provides opportunity better than school choice.

In recent years, Louisiana has been under the radar of the school choice movement due to its rising number of school choice programs. Under Jindal, Louisiana expanded its voucher system dramatically, but it is currently fighting an extended legal battle.

School choice is all about giving students an equal opportunity to learn, succeed, and thrive. Opposing school choice is to choose a system that increasingly delivers nothing more than an equal opportunity to fail.

What do you think? What does equal opportunity mean to you? Leave us a comment below!

Anatomy of an Award Cycle

[Content was a featured post on ACSTO’s ‘News & Updates’ blog on 03/11/13.
Click for blog link here.]

0e1832609_anatomy-of-an-award-cycle

Of the three ACSTO award cycles that occur every school year, the Spring Awards are traditionally the largest and most exciting. This year is no exception! While the April 15th relateback has caused a large percentage of donors to delay their annual giving until tax time, we are still at a net gain compared to last year because of the new Overflow/PLUS tax credit opportunity. Our Selection Committees will have their hands full! We also attribute this gain to a revamped effort to connect with our valuable partners: schools, parents, and donors.

Now you might be thinking, “What happens during an award cycle? What are those Selection Committees that ACSTO keeps talking about?” Let’s take a moment to familiarize ourselves with this important process.

ACSTO grants scholarship awards three times per year: summer, fall, and spring. There are many processes involved with each of these events, so we summarize them into what we call Award Cycles: a Summer Award Cycle, Fall Award Cycle, and Spring Award Cycle.

The award process is not simple. There are many state regulations an STO must adhere to in order to stay compliant with the tax credit laws. As such, as each award cycle approaches, there is much to prepare. The primary concern is the decision process—how are the actual scholarship amounts determined?

A glance into A.R.S. 43-1603 will give us insight on where to start, which states that when evaluating applications and awarding scholarships, a school tuition organization:

  1. May allow donors to recommend student beneficiaries, but shall not award, designate or reserve scholarships solely on the basis of donor recommendations, but may consider the recommendation among other factors.
  2. Shall consider the financial need of applicants.

The law clearly states that recommendations are allowed, but they cannot be the only deciding factor. In addition, financial need must at least be considered. That means that every STO has two options by default with which to decide scholarships: recommendations and financial need.

It is up to the STO to determine any additional factors. ACSTO has chosen to include a third factor: a narrative. As every parent who has completed a scholarship application knows, the narrative is a description of who the child is and why the child is deserving of a scholarship.

So we have what we use to determine the awards, but now who decides? It is far too much information for one person to process, especially with the volume of donations ACSTO handles. The scholarship awarding model ACSTO has chosen to use is the Selection Committee.

Our Selection Committees are composed of individuals with a history of service in the Christian school community, many of them long serving since 1998 when we first started. They are highly engaged and motivated to make the very best use of the scholarship awards under their care.

They work together in deciding the scholarship awards using the three factors described above. They are given complete freedom while granting the awards, therefore, they are able to weigh any of the three factors as they see fit on a case by case basis.

All together, this is a check and balance system which ensures that all students are given proper consideration. This process also certifies that all our scholarship awards are compliant with all applicable state regulations and statutes.

Encourage Donations with the April 15 Relateback

[Content was a featured post on ACSTO’s ‘News & Updates’ blog on 02/21/13.
Click for blog link here.]

0e1832521_april-15th

One of the largest hindrances for people wanting to make a tax credit donation is that there is usually a large gap of time between when they donate and when they can receive the credit. Fortunately, this problem was recognized in the legislature, and tax law now allows you to make your donation at the beginning of the year just before you file your taxes, and still count that donation for the previous year. It is a permanent change called the April 15th relateback.

This relateback changes the donation deadline to April 15th instead of December 31st, or prior to when you file your taxes, whichever comes first. This deadline only applies to Original and Overflow/PLUS individual tax credit donations. Everything else, including other kinds of tax credits, is still due by December 31st. If you want to claim your tax credit donation as a Federal deduction, the deadline is also still December 31st. There are no extensions for the relateback beyond April 15th of any kind. Donations must be postmarked or entered online before midnight, April 15th.

This means that if you donate between January 1st and April 15th, it is up to the donor to choose which year they will claim the donation.

Because of this new deadline, figuring out exactly what you can donate has never been easier! You are able to gather all your income documentation at the beginning of the new year, calculate your exact liability, donate that amount, file your taxes, and receive your tax credit. This eliminates most of the gap between donating and receiving a credit.

This means that if you’ve already donated for last year, but discover that you have some income tax liability left over when you sit down to calculate your actual tax, you can make another donation to ACSTO and still claim it on your 2012 taxes to finish off the year, so long as you are still within the maximums allowed ($2006/$1003 for married/single, respectively).

Advantages of Faith-Based Schools

[Content featured post on ACSTO’s ‘News & Updates’ blog on 05/07/13.
Click for blog link here.]

0e1841929_school-choice-whiteboardIf you are reading this post, you most likely agree that private schools can beat out the competition any day. However, it’s helpful to know that research consistently proves it to be a fact, and not just an opinion.

Dr. William Jeynes, Senior Fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, and Professor of Education at California State University, undertook this study and is well-known for his meta-analytic research on a variety of topics. This study combined the findings from 90 different sources and was published in issue 3, volume 87 of the scholarly Peabody Journal of Education. This is all to say that this is a very respectable source!

Of the three main school types – traditional public, charter, and private religious – the results show that private religious education is associated with the highest levels of academic achievement.

During this past decade, there has been a trend toward expanding charter school options.  But to Dr. Jeynes surprise, according to his conversation with the Council for American Private Education, “students from charter schools did no better than their counterparts in traditional public schools. To the extent that neither traditional public schools nor charter schools are succeeding on a broad scale, it appears that the best hope for American education is religious private schools. Not only are they considerably more economically efficient, but their students obtain better results.” [emphasis added]

In conclusion, Dr. Jeynes asserts that “faith-based schools contribute something vital to the academic well-being of millions of American students” and “educators would be wise to investigate the possibility of expanding school choice programs to include the private sector.” This is good news because even though we already have school choice options for private schooling in Arizona, such as our tax credit scholarship program, it still has its limitations. There are still thousands of families who would make the switch to private Christian education if they were only given a chance. If educators and legislators could only see the benefits of equal opportunity in education, they would give private school funding even more leeway, allowing even more families to be able to afford the proven benefits of faith-based schooling.

For more school choice and private schooling support, check out our School Choice Research page on our website. This page, in addition to our blog, will provide you with everything you need to stay up-to-date on the school choice debate.