More Nigerian states are returning public schools seized from churches decades ago, refueling debate over the high tuition charged by mission schools.

Mission schools, which since the 1800s offered free or low-cost education to the majority of Nigeria's youth, were nationalized after the West African nation's civil war ended in 1970 in an attempt to defuse tribalism. In 2001, Lagos became the first state to return hundreds of seized mission schools to churches in hopes of seeing quality of education improve. The states of Imo, Ogun, and Plateau—home of conflict-ridden Jos—followed suit.

Recently, the southern state of Anambra returned 1,040 primary schools to their original church owners, while neighboring Delta handed over 40 schools with more to come. Four other southern states have expressed interest in doing the same.

The majority of government teachers, however, have refused employment in the returned schools, protesting that church operators are too strict and profit-oriented.

Their concerns echo a heated debate among Christians over the fees charged by today's mission schools. Tuition at church-run primary schools ranges from 15,000 to 50,000 naira ($100-$350) per term. The minimum wage in Nigeria is 18,000 naira ($120) per month.

Many church families complain they cannot afford to enroll their children. "These schools are not for the poor; they are too elitist," said Bola Akin-John, president of International Church Growth Ministries. "Even members who donated toward their establishments cannot send their children there."

"They should have told us they are running profit-oriented schools from the outset," said Alex Adegboye, general overseer of The Stone Church in Ibadan, "instead of using the word mission to raise money, get public support, and turn around to become unaffordable."

Church operators counter that quality education does not come cheaply anywhere in the world.

"People keep referring to the mission schools of [past] days, but they forget some people were paying for the free education from abroad," said Jerry Akinsola, director of Christian education for the Nigerian Baptist Convention. "If we will continue to offer quality education and remain at the cutting edge, then somebody must pay."

The convention, which operates Bowen University in Osun state among 15 other schools, offers rebates of up to 50 percent to financially committed church members. Nearby Joseph Ayo Babalola University, run by the Christ Apostolic Church, recently announced a 15 percent discount for member families.

Fees charged by mission schools are moderate compared to the quality they offer, said Paul Omaji, vice chancellor of Salem University, sponsored by Foundation Faith Church International. Mission schools also offer flexible payments and scholarships to orphans, which conveys their Christian values, he said.

"If education is expensive," he said, "then people should try ignorance."

Most mission schools are better equipped than public schools, and students outperform their public counterparts on tests.

However, the question remains whether churches can administratively handle the return of so many schools so quickly. Riots shut down an Anglican university in Oyo for weeks last February after a student died because of poor facilities at the school's health center.

Adun Akinyemiju, Nigeria director for the Association of Christian Schools International, knows that operating a school is not cheap. However, she urges mission school owners to increase tuition subsidies in order to transform more lives.

"Christian schools are raising disciples for Christ," she said. "That is something eternal that no amount of money can buy."


Related Elsewhere:

Other Christianity Today reports from Nigeria include:

Violence in Nigeria: Breaking the Country's Fatal Deadlock | Christians and Muslims will find peace if they work together for justice. (April 30, 2012)
Church Leaders Debate Self-Defense | Nigerian Christians abandon cheek-turning. (December 19, 2011)
'In Jos We Are Coming Face to Face in Confrontation with Satan' | The Anglican Archbishop of Jos speaks out on last week's deadly attacks and the media coverage that followed. (January 26, 2010)
The Truth About the Religious Violence in Jos, Nigeria | It's not easy to state who started it or how many died. But the horror for those affected is clear. (January 21, 2010)
More Human Smoke Rises in Jos | This week's deadly riots struck home for the academic dean of ECWA Theological Seminary. (January 21, 2010)

CT's Liveblog also has updates about Nigeria:

Update on Religious Violence in Nigeria (January 6, 2012)
Sudan, Nigeria Rise Most in 2011 Persecution Rankings | Open Doors' 2012 World Watch List ranks countries where Christians suffered in 2011. (January 4, 2012)
Church Bombings Mar Christmas for Nigerian Christians (December 27, 2011)