It’s not really new for Christian leaders to advise parents to remove their children from the public schools. James Dobson encouraged an exodus in 2002, and in 2004 the Southern Baptist Convention introduced a resolution urging parents to remove their children from government schools (it was soundly defeated at the group’s annual meeting that year). At the time, the question was almost always framed as “should Christians remove their children from public schools?” Many argued that Christians should maintain a presence in the schools — that schools could be redeemed, both as an institution and spiritually. Christian children could — and even should — be missionaries in the schools, many argued.
Now, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has turned the question on its head, instead asking, “Is Public School an Option?” In a recent article, Mohler, an influential evangelical Christian cultural and intellectual leader, wrote:
The growing chaos in society is forcing Christians to rethink even their most cherished assumptions about their relationship with government institutions.
Mohler begins with the reminder that parents are responsible for the education of their children — that God will hold parents accountable for the decisions they make regarding their children, including on their education. “The duty of Christian parents to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord cannot be delegated to anyone else—not to the state, not to the schools, and not even to the church.” So regardless of how or where children are “formally” educated, the responsibility for spiritual training ultimately rests with the parents.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, most American children have attended public schools. Mohler looks back nostalgically at the American century:
Evangelical families sent their children to the public schools with confidence and with eagerness. They had little interest in other alternatives for the simple reason that they saw little need for any alternative. Evangelical Christians were happy with the public schools and saw them as both effective and efficient in the delivery of an American education. They also saw the public schools as safe and healthy places for children, and they grew to love the athletic programs and extracurricular activities that grew along with the schools in the American Century, as the last century came to be known.
But by the end of the twentieth century, evangelical Christians began to leave public schools by the millions as the country witnessed an explosion in Christian schools and homeschooling.
Mohler blames the loss of local control for much of the “backlash against the public schools.” In earlier generations, “the public schools were public in the sense that they were community schools maintained for and by the citizens of a community. Local control was axiomatic, and parents had a direct influence in the curriculum and policies of the schools.”
All of that began to change with the influence of the progressive agenda, though it took decades to fully emerge. But, Mohler says, “the last half of the twentieth century saw the public schools radically transformed in the vast majority of communities.” Supreme Court decisions “secularized the schools in a way that separated the schools from their communities and families.” Mohler notes that the “evil of racial segregation was rightly ended,” but court-ordered school busing destroyed the sense of community.
The most radical transformation, says Mohler, has been political and ideological:
Control of the schools, enforced through both funding and mandates, migrated to the national government where an army of educational bureaucrats replaced local school boards as the real arbiters of educational policy. Labor unions for teachers, rather than parents, now exert vast influence over the schools.
Mohler lists radicalization in many areas parents have ceded to the schools: human sexuality, postmodern understandings of truth, revisionist understandings of American history, Darwinian understandings of science and humanity. Combined with the breakdown of discipline in the schools and the way schools are being transformed into social service centers, Mohler asks if public school is even an option anymore for Christian families.
While he lauds dedicated teachers in public schools, many of them Christians, he says the vast majority of schools no longer operate under local control. “Should Christian parents send their children to the public schools?” Mohler asks. He says the answer is increasingly “no” for parents who take the Christian worldview seriously.
We can understand the nostalgia that many Christians hold about the public schools. I spent every minute of my school life from the first grade to high school graduation in a public school. And yet, I saw the ideological transformation of the schools before my own eyes.
This is one of the most difficult questions a Christian family must wrestle with as school curriculum and speech and behavior codes increasingly stand in opposition to Christian teachings. There are still some schools that maintain a modicum of local control and reflect the values of their communities, but increasingly, they’re shackled with state and federal mandates, leaving little room for local decision-making. I attended a candidate forum not long ago where several school board candidates explained why they should be elected and answered questions from the community. One candidate — who has been on the school board for several years — fielded a question from a parent about Common Core and whether she planned to do anything to stop it. We live in a small, very conservative community, one you’d think would be the bastion of local control. Her answer was basically that the Ohio Department of Education in Columbus sends them the mandates and they have to follow them. So much for local control.
Like Dr. Mohler, I look back nostalgically on my public school experience. We said the Pledge of Allegiance every day, sang patriotic songs, and sang religious songs — Christian songs that were a part of our shared American culture. When I was in 5th grade and I wanted to read Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. — unbelievably tame by today’s standard’s — the school librarian marched me down to the office and called my mother to ask her permission. My middle school was legendary for “boarding” — the school’s rather odd euphemism for spanking. Serious discipline problems were rare.
Those days are gone.
For many families, public school may be the only option. For others, it may mean difficult choices and sacrifices — including foregoing a second income. The stakes are very high. Consider the effects of thirty or more hours a week in a government school where you have no control over what your children are taught — where your local teachers have little or no control over the content of their lessons. Where the federal bureaucrats — many of whom have antipathy toward your Christian values — dictate what your children learn, all day long. How much time are you willing to invest in debriefing your children? Are young children equipped to discern truth from error, day after day over a period of many years? How will you convince them that you are the authority on any given subject — that what you’re teaching them is right — and not their teachers? Is it fair to put a young child in the position of choosing between what their teacher is telling them and what their parents and Sunday school teachers say?
These are important ideological and spiritual questions. In the past, public school was the default for Christian families; Christian schools and homeschooling were thought of as “alternatives.” During the days when communities actually controlled their schools, those who argued that Christians could have an influence on the schools had a compelling argument. No longer. As Dr. Mohler concluded, “Long ago, the public schools entered a Brave New World from which no retreat now seems possible.”