Should Christian parents send their children to the public schools? That question has emerged as one of the most controversial debates of our times. And yet, every family must come to terms with the issues involved in the public school debate—and fast.
Most parents already know that a great deal is at stake in this question. We start with the affirmation that it is parents who bear responsibility for the education of their children. God will hold every parent accountable for the decisions we make about our children and the context, as well as the content, of their education (Deuteronomy 6:1–26; Ephesians 6:1–4). In the truest sense, Christians understand that every home is a church, a government, and a school—the first church, the first government, and the first school that a child will come to know. 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.
In today’s context, most parents still send their children to the public schools. This has been the norm and expectation for most American parents since the beginning of the twentieth century. Until fairly recently, exceptions to this rule have been seen as profoundly anti-democratic and practically un-American. Homeschoolers were seen as marginal eccentrics, Catholics were seen as hopelessly sectarian, and those who sent their children to private schools were seen as elitist snobs.
For the most part, American evangelicals in the twentieth century agreed with this assessment. 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.
Then, something happened. By the end of the twentieth century, American evangelicals were abandoning the public schools by the millions. The last four decades have witnessed the explosive expansion of the Christian school movement in America and the emergence of homeschooling as a mainstream educational option among the nation’s Christians. Why?
A Tradition of Local Control
To understand the reason for this vast backlash against the public schools, a bit of historical perspective is required. The earliest public schools in the United States were community-based and parent-controlled. Parents and fellow citizens within a community would establish a school and hire a schoolmaster. The community would establish the curriculum, and the schoolmaster was expected to maintain discipline within the school as well as to guide the education of the students.
Public schools are being transformed rapidly into laboratories for ideological experimentation and indoctrination. If these developments have not come to your school, they almost surely will soon.
This pattern prevailed even when the nation grew and village schools gave way to the vast suburban expansion of modern America. 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.
That model of the public school, though rightly cherished in the American memory, is no more. First came the educational authorities who pushed for a “progressive” understanding of the schools and their function. Figures such as John Dewey argued in the early years of the last century that the public schools should form a common liberal culture as their main purpose. Without hiding their agenda, these educators argued that the public schools should separate children from the religious “prejudices” of their parents and redefine Americanism as what Dewey called a secular “common faith.”
Still, the full impact of the progressivist agenda took decades to emerge. For the most part, the public schools in rural and suburban America remained community schools. Local school boards, elected by the community, set policy and controlled the schools. The schools continued to teach the basic disciplines and to maintain order and discipline in the classrooms. That condition did not last, however, and the last half of the twentieth century saw the public schools radically transformed in the vast majority of communities.
Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court secularized the schools in a way that separated the schools from their communities and families. The courts also turned the schools into arenas of endless litigation. The evil of racial segregation was rightly ended. But as a result, court-ordered busing programs eliminated any sense of a community school for many families.
In Their Own Words
Here are sample resolutions from the 2012–2013 convention of the National Education Association. If your school has not yet implemented these resolutions, it seems the NEA would like to change that.
The NEA pushes educational programs that increase acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle, regardless of the parents’ views.
“Plans, activities, and programs must . . . increase respect, understanding, acceptance, and sensitivity toward individuals and groups in a diverse society composed of such groups as . . . gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender persons . . . . Such plans, activities and programs must . . . encourage all members of the educational community to examine assumptions and prejudices, including, but not limited to, racism, sexism, and homophobia.”
—B-14. Racism, Sexism, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identification Discrimination.
The NEA believes government schools should supply family planning instruction and resources directly to children.
“The National Education Association believes that every child should have direct and confidential access to comprehensive health, social, and psychological programs and services. . . . The Association also believes that schools should provide . . . family-planning counseling and access to birth control methods.”
—C-25. Comprehensive School Health, Social, and Psychological Programs and Services.
The NEA opposes parental efforts to restrict obscene and offensive books in school libraries and classrooms.
“The Association deplores prepublishing censorship, book-burning crusades, and attempts to ban books from school library media centers and school curricula.”
—E-3. Selection and Challenges of Materials and Teaching Techniques.
The Fruit of Revolution
But the most radical transformation of the public schools was political and ideological in origin. 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.
The ideological revolution has been even more damaging than the political change. Those who set educational policy are now overwhelmingly committed to a radically naturalistic and evolutionistic worldview that sees the schools as engines of social revolution. The classrooms are being transformed rapidly into laboratories for ideological experimentation and indoctrination. The great engines for Americanization are now forces for the radicalization of everything from human sexuality to postmodern understandings of truth and the meaning of texts. Compulsory sex education, the creation of “comprehensive health clinics,” revisionist understandings of American history, Darwinian understandings of science and humanity, and a host of other ideological developments now shape the norm in the public school experience. If these developments have not come to your local school, they almost surely will soon.
Added to these worries is the general breakdown of discipline within the schools and the fact that the public schools are now seen as social service centers. Many schools are asked to do social work as much as education, and the very idea of what such an education should be is up for debate. Standards have fallen, discipline has evaporated, armed guards roam many hallways, and teachers feel increasingly unable to teach or to maintain order.
This is not just the fault of the schools and educators. Politicians demand that the schools fix society’s problems. But no school can replace a broken or dysfunctional family; no teacher can replace a missing father.
Many fine teachers and administrators serve in the public schools, and many Christians serve among them. In some parts of the country, the public schools still operate in some sense as community schools under local control. And yet, this is already not the case for the vast majority of schools and communities, and the handwriting is on the wall for the rest.
Is public school an option? For Christians who take the Christian worldview seriously and who understand the issues at stake, the answer is increasingly no. The number of Christian parents coming to this conclusion increases each year. 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. Long ago, the public schools entered a Brave New World from which no retreat now seems possible.