September 21, 2020

Is school out for Baptists?

Is School Out for Baptists?
Southern Baptists consider the benefits of dropping out of public schools
by Michael Spencer

“Contemporary Christianity in America has become a self-absorbed culture of protection against everything that is deemed threatening while embracing every consumer driven gimmick that comes along.”

– Steve McFarland

“If Baptist parents were to comply with the resolution, the public school system probably would collapse,” said Pinckney, who publishes The Baptist Banner. ”I think that would be one of the finest things that can happen for the United States,” he said.

– Tennessean article.

“Why should we be stingy in support of and apologetic about this plainly worthy public school system? After all, our greatest national resource has been and still is our young people. Last year 43.5 million boys and girls were enrolled in our public schools, the largest number in our history. Every generation requires a shared experience….Genuine patriotism calls for strengthening, not weakening, public education. We retrench at the nation’s peril. Only one generation of retreat would destroy this priceless resource that binds us together as a people.”

– Maston Colloquium Statement on Public Education, 2001

• • •

The Southern Baptist Convention is on the verge of a major debate about public education. Resolutions urging Christians to abandon public schools are everywhere, and one will likely be brought to the Southern Baptist Convention floor this year or next. Homeschoolers, advocates of private Christian schools and the many critics of public education seem to sense that the hour has arrived to bring down the “evil empire” of godless, secular public schools. The swords are out and battle lines are being drawn.

I’ve long avoided writing about these issues because I knew that I would, once again, be in a minority, but also because I am a teacher and minister at a large private Christian school. How can I advocate support for public schools? A wholesale evangelical withdrawal from the public schools would be a boon to our school. The rhetoric of the anti-public school movement could easily fit into our school’s advertising, though we have avoided anything more than modest comparisons. Well, that’s not who I am or where I am. I support public schools both as a citizen and as a Christian, though certainly not without thought and consideration.

I am a public school graduate, and proud of it. Twelve years of public education at Lincoln Elementary, Estes Junior High and Owensboro High School. (Go Red Devils!) Those years were some of the best memories of my life. No bullies. No drugs. No abuse. Good times and a good education that served me well. My dad graduated the eighth grade in a one room, eastern Kentucky school. Neither of my parents attended college. There were no books in the house where I grew up. Public school was a world of hope and happiness for me, and I am not about to forget it when times are tough.

While I wouldn’t send my kids to every public school, I would send them to most public schools without reservation. I would send my kids to most public schools long before I would send them to most private schools, because I fear distorted ideas about God more than I do the absence of belief in God in a school. I would never homeschool my kids unless it was an emergency, even though I am college educated (and beyond), teach others, and could master homeschooling in most subjects. Yes, my kids attended and graduated from a private Christian school, but OBI is not typical of private Christian schools, and the similarities to those schools (like young earth creationism and weird rules about dancing) were among the few negatives in their experiences.

OBI does allow me a unique window on educational experiences. In our ministry, I see hundreds of kids who have done poorly in public school. I see the kids public schools can’t help, failed to teach and threw out for behavior. We get every kind of learning and behavior disorder in the book. I read hundreds of pages of discipline notes every year. I see the kids whose parents don’t give a nickel about the value of education and therefore let their kids stay home 70+ days in a year.

We also deal with students from homeschools and private, church-run schools. I see homeschool kids who are brilliant and homeschool kids who are five grades behind. I see homeschool kids who are scared of almost everyone, but who usually come out of their shells and enjoy the opportunities we provide. I see Christian school kids of every kind, from great examples of excellence to obvious products of educational incompetence. I’ve got strong opinions and impressions on all these education options and how they work for students. I have opinions about school boards, teachers and administrators. I can bore you if you want to be bored, or I can make you mad if you haven’t been fired up in a while.

I’m not a trained educator, just a private school teacher, an advocate for kids and a communicator. I’m not big on numbers, because I’m a bit skeptical about how they are used by both sides anyway. I believe there must be a place in the picture for every kind of education: public, private and home. The strength of America (and of a non-fundamentalist Christian faith) is the pursuit of the good and the true through diverse experiences. I am hearing a lot of propaganda that doesn’t match up with my experience or the lessons of thirty years of ministry to students and families. I believe in Christian education, but I don’t think you build great Christian schools on the foundation of fear, but rather on clear alternatives of excellence and love.

I don’t think choosing one route as right for my family makes me the enemy of those who go about education differently than I do. I’m tired of hearing homeschools and Christian schools portrayed as cultic, abusive and incompetent. I’m just as tired of advocates of Christian education using slander and propaganda to mount a distorted attack on public schools. I think there is a better way than these “either/or,” worst case scenarios.

My own cards being on the table, I’d like to speak to the homeschoolers and private schoolers in the audience. Listen carefully please.

I am not against homeschooling. I recognize its value and accomplishments. One would have to be a fool to not see the good things happening in the homeschool movement in America. It’s a choice millions of Americans make, and I fully support them, if not all their reasoning and methodology. Same with private Christian schools. I support them and I hope they grow.

I don’t believe homeschool parents are weird, abusive control freaks who are screwing up their kids. I’ve read the fright pieces written by people who apparently feel homeschoolers are a cult. Such accusations usually look at the extreme fringe or the unavoidable bad examples and generalize into ridiculous conclusions. I believe most homeschool parents love their kids and work to make the homeschool experience a great one. I have no doubt homeschooling done well can produce impressive results. While I have some modest critiques of homeschooling as I have seen its results in my ministries, being cultic, abusive or dangerous aren’t on the list. (If saying some kids are “undersocialized” is too hard for you to hear, then you’d better stop reading.)

I believe that education is the moral and Biblical responsibility of parents, not the responsibility of government or anyone else. Parents have the God-given right to determine what is the best educational course for their children. If those parents choose homeschooling, they shouldn’t be harassed or regulated. I applaud states that have a “hands off” approach to homeschooling. I also applaud states that keep homeschooling, private schools and public schools completely separate. (I’m not sure all my Southern Baptist friends are on the same page.)

I enthusiastically applaud the ministries of the thousands of Christian schools in America. I applaud their excellence and accomplishments. I hope they flourish and multiply, going into every community in America and making private, Christian education an option for every family and child. While some Christian schools are sub-standard or incompetent, that’s not typical. Christian schools do a good job in what they do. I salute the faculty and staff of those schools, who serve at a fraction of what public school employees are compensated. It’s a labor of love, and thousands of students are grateful for what those servants give in the name of Jesus.

I believe that homeschooling and private Christian schools are agents of the Kingdom of God. They are doing Kingdom work. Their God-centered and Bible honoring approaches to education are a ministry of the Kingdom. They bring salt and light into our culture, and they are making positive differences in lives and communities. Even as I offer some disagreement, I am not at all rejecting the work of these Christian education ministries. God is using homeschooling and private Christian schools.

I am very aware of the culture war going on in America’s public schools, and the reasonable fears many evangelicals have about sending their children into that battleground. When Noel was in elementary school, I was happy with her public school. I also knew what was waiting for her in our particular junior high and beyond, and I was concerned. In that community, I would have chosen a private school for my children rather than send them to a public school that wasn’t doing a good job. I support any parent who looks at public schools and says they are concerned enough to make another choice. I believe we must, as Christians and citizens, oppose the indoctrination of children into a worldview different from that of their parents, and we can’t support schools that don’t provide a safe learning environment. I join my conservative friends in outrage at what teachers’ unions and educational activists have done to the public schools. While I don’t believe every extreme story, I know enough of them are true that I would support any parents who said they couldn’t send their child into that environment. There is a time to go and work for change, and there is a time to make another choice. I understand that thoroughly.

I am deeply suspicious of the concept of “government schools.” I understand that many Christians now purposely speak of “government schools,” and while I may disagree with some of their intent in that language, I agree that the control of schools by government raises some ominous possibilities. I believe that education is a community interest, but not a government mandate. Schools are unique institutions in communities, and flourish when they are accountable to the families and communities in which they exist, not to some expert in the capital. I believe government must be a partner with citizens in providing schools, but government cannot “own” or “control” schools to the extent that they no longer are “community” schools reflecting parental values and local vision. Public schools cannot be agents for agendas far outside of the local community and the values of the families in their community.

I recognize that in some public schools, an aggressive anti-Christian agenda pervades. Again, without believing all the propaganda, I can agree that David Limbaugh is correct in much of what he writes in “Persecution.” Without close monitoring by the community, the public schools can easily become a reflection of a liberal agenda to render Christianity irrelevant, and education is a primary tool in that quest. While I don’t see this as particularly new, I do understand that many parents would not want their child in the hands of anyone hostile to Christianity during their child’s impressionable school days. As confident as I am that Christian churches and parents can counter this, I support those who say they don’t want to run the risks.

I believe the church should support parents who homeschool or send their children to private, Christian schools. With a diversity of educational options available to Christian parents, churches are obligated to find ways to support families who make differing choices. It is inappropriate for a pastor to take the position that parents cannot send their children to public schools, even if the pastor and church staff make the homeschooling or private school choice. There are a variety of ways to support parents, and churches should be circumspect in making every Christian parent feel the church is their full partner in carrying out the responsibility of educating their children. No parent should be told he or she is disobeying God’s Word and hurting his or her children by sending them to a public school.

The welfare of our children must be among our highest priorities in life, and it must be something for which we are willing to sacrifice and even suffer. At no time would I want it to be said that I think some aspect of the Christian mission is more important than caring for our children. I understand that many families are making the choice to love their children when they take them out of the public school, and that choice is fundamental to a healthy family. As a parent who has been guilty of putting ministry before family at times, I know that God will ask each of us about our children long before we account for anything else in the Christian life or mission.

The welfare, however, of all children is an extension of the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, and therefore the welfare of all children in a community is the concern of a Christian citizen. Is it possible to embrace God’s call to care for our own children while at the same time realizing we have some responsibility for the children of the community in which we live? Not to raise someone else’s children, but, to the extent allowed in our culture, to influence those children for good? To influence community expressions of concern and love for young people? To provide hope and, yes, light? I think we need a discussion of the Christian approach to the public square (including public schools) and not just a discussion of how we love our own children or protect ourselves from a fallen culture. Is it really an “either/or” issue in deciding which kids will get a decent education?

If I’ve made it clear that I am no enemy of those who don’t use public schools, then I want to share why I support the public schools, when so many evangelicals are joining the movement to desert them.

1. Most parents- Christian or not- can neither homeschool nor send their children to a private Christian school. Tens of millions of America’s children live in homes where public schools are their only hope of an education and its benefits. If the SBC resolution signals the beginnings of a movement to start new Christian schools and support more homeschools, that’s great. But no one can seriously look at the numbers–over 40 million students in public schools–and think that Christian schools or homeschools can do anything more than deal with a tiny minority of students. It’s imperative that Christians accept reality and develop an approach to helping public school parents and kids. Many churches are already doing so, and they should be applauded. The voices saying Christian schools can educate America’s children are…well…nuts, statistically speaking. Get real. There are always going to be millions and millions of public school kids in all kinds of public schools.

2. We must support the millions of Christians whose vocations and ministries are in the public schools. Perhaps the single most distressing thing about the current call for Christians to abandon public schools is the stunning rejection of those whom God has called to minister in those schools as Christian administrators, teachers and staff. Every church I’ve ever served had a generous representation of public school employees in the congregation. Christian teachers were some of my earliest mentors as a new Christian. My junior high principal was the interim pastor of our church for years. I would see Christian teachers at school and then at church. How can anyone in good conscience say these people are not where God wants them to be, or suggest that God is calling them to abandon their ministries to lost and hurting kids? It’s bizarre and offensive. Maybe Southern Baptists need to publish a list of vocations God never calls you to. Do we really want to become churches where you can’t stand up and say, “God has called me to teach in the public schools” without being booed?

3. The vast majority of America’s private Christian schools are 1) economically out of reach of poor families and 2) open only to Christian families and/or students. I am thankful that our school is different in both areas, but the truth is many, if not most, Christian schools are neither affordable nor available to lower income, non-Christian students. The drumbeat to abandon the public schools is not an invitation to affordable, open Christian schools, because those schools are–by and large–for middle income, already evangelical Christian families. Outside of those groups, there isn’t a desk for you. Why can’t someone be honest here? A good percentage of private Christian education seems designed to get away from certain kinds of people. If it’s not so, then let’s change some things to open those doors and end that impression.

4. Public schools are a vast open mission field for ministries of many kinds. Despite the horror stories, the fact is most public schools welcome Christians as teachers, involved parents, staff and supporters. Many are desperate for help. They need tutors, coaches, classroom assistants, etc. Churches that work to help public schools find that the majority are open to and grateful for that help. Only a small minority are closing doors. “Faith based” ministries are not locked out in most of America’s public schools, even if they must operate on some limitations. Teachers and parents are still able to wash feet, give cups of cold water and meet needs in public schools. Yes, there may be limitations on open evangelism, but that is no excuse to not go into the mission field of the public schools. It’s news when a school says a youth minister can’t serve as a volunteer counselor because it’s not the usual response. If we go with the right attitude and a missionary heart, the schools are open, and Christ clearly calls us to “go,” not “leave.”

5. Christian public school students may be some of the boldest witnesses in America. We need to support them. I find it absolutely outrageous that the same denomination that has been telling youth ministries for fifty years to develop courageous witnesses in public schools is now saying abandon ship and go to a “Christian school.” Is the lesson of Columbine or Paducah that America’s Christian kids need to go hunker down in their own safely protected schools with no unbelievers allowed? Is the “See You At The Pole” movement now turning into the “See You at the Homeschool Picnic” movement? Young people in public schools are some of the boldest witnesses in our culture, and we need to be encouraging them to do more, not retreat. Who can believe this is happening among Southern Baptists?

6. Wholesale abandonment of the public schools would be an evangelical disaster. Manufacturing a “divine word” to abandon ship is fraudulent and arrogant. Putting God’s authority behind this very bad idea is typical of the cavalier way some evangelicals now throw around the idea that “God is leading” their personal preferences in the culture war. Deserting public schools would be the most foolish and regrettable move ever made by Southern Baptists, and blaming God for the suggestion won’t ease the blow when they are held up as giving up on what all good people know can be a great place of Christian service. If Southern Baptists want to abandon something, abandon the kind of bomb shelter fundamentalism that justifies surrender and ghetto thinking with false statements of authority and a misuse of scripture.

7. Many of the voices calling for the abandonment of the public schools are being less than candid about their entire agenda, particularly as it pertains to government support of private schools and homeschooling. I probably agree with many of those who seek a voucher system or more recognition of homeschoolers in the tax code, etc. But could these advocates be honest about their overall goals? If they want government support of religious schools in any way, say so out front.

8. Thousands of America’s public schools bear little resemblance to the caricatures used to criticize “government schools.” If you live in most of America, you don’t recognize the portrayal of public schools you hear from many pulpits and radio programs. That’s not your school they are describing. You know things are far from perfect, but you also know your school does a good job. Most teachers work hard and care. Most kids take advantage of the education. Coaches give opportunities that shape lives. Fine arts make the community proud. The community school is a deserving source of community pride. There are no condom distributions or readings of gay literature. Christians aren’t ridiculed any more than at your job. For those in schools who are rotten enough to feed the caricature, I say keep the pressure on or take your kids elsewhere. But most schools are reflections of basic American traditions and values, not just culture war casualties and dangerous social breakdown.

9. The current problems in public schools do not warrant the abandonment of the concept of a “community school,” an idea that most American Christians have endorsed and supported for most of two centuries. As an American citizen, I believe an educated population is essential to democracy. As a realist, I know that Christian schools and homeschools aren’t going to do the job that public schools do for millions of students. Community schools have always been supported by the majority of American Christians as a way to love their neighbor’s kids by providing a good school. Education is a uniting experience in America, and public schools make it possible. Yes, they have problems. Yes, we need them. No, we cannot do without them. We need some ideas, but abandoning ship is a terrible one.

10. Unless American Christians go to drastic lengths to withdraw from culture entirely–and equip families to thoroughly disciple their children in the Christian worldview–the effects of withdrawal from public schools will be negligible. (See Amish Christianity for examples, please.) The panacea implied in the calls to withdraw are typical of fundamentalism’s approach to complex problems: Find a scapegoat and drive it over a cliff so we all feel better. Well, if we burn public schools at the stake we won’t have driven the evil from our midst. We will have removed one of the great forces for good in our culture. The destructive culture so many fear is coming at young people from a variety of sources. In that regard, the homeschoolers have it right. You must control the total experience of growing up, and be with your children as much as possible. Involved parents make a big difference for every kid in every situation, because finally, it’s the family, not the school, that has the greatest effect on a young person.

11. Great Christian education doesn’t proceed from fear and ignorance, but from providing an alternative of excellence and love. Christians have great alternatives, but we don’t have easy answers. Not in homeschool. Not in ABEKA books. Not in Latin. Not in Classical curriculum. Not in Charlotte Mason. Not in uniforms and daily chapel. Our alternative should be love, truth and excellence. Great education can happen in a lot of places, but I’ve never seen it grow well in the soil of resentment, fear and apocalyptic fundamentalism. Offer a great alternative and let the world see the results. Don’t fearmonger and distort to motivate people.

There is so much else to say. Public schools provide great programs for special education needs and children with learning problems. They are the only realistic option for many–not all–of the Fine Arts opportunities for high school students in rural areas. Athletics is much criticized in America today, but I think our public schools do a great job in keeping alive a solid amateur athletic tradition that enriches lives and communities, and in most cases, in tying those programs effectively to academic performance. I’m grateful for the opportunities to serve and learn that were part of my public school education. I earned a full first year scholarship to college because my public school helped me to qualify. Some homeschools and private schools can provide opportunities similar to public schools, but public schools are unique in many, many places and many ways, especially in rural areas and inner city areas where evangelicals have fled to the suburbs.

Evangelicals are beginning to be tempted by a different spirit than the activism and optimism that has defined them for more than a century. They are beginning to think of the safety of their own parallel culture as preferable to the dangers of the culture. (Similar to what many Muslims feel about Western culture. Interesting, huh?) Their own schools, entertainment, books, even communities. The response to this temptation will define whether evangelicals are going to be salt and light, or a city on a hill. You see, we must be ALL those things and more. We must go into the world. We must love as Jesus loved. We must do the hands-on, practical ministries. And we must take care of our children and see that they are educated and discipled.

The current calls to abandon the public schools are a wrong road to those goals. We must go into the world, and not withdraw from it. I don’t know if Jesus would tell us to leave public schools or not. I have a feeling he wouldn’t be as interested in where a child went to school as what the adults in that child’s life had in their hearts. In the judgment of some, that child is in danger of losing Jesus in the chaos of public schools, and we must withraw from those schools to insure our kids have Jesus. But others say Jesus is still in public schools and Christians may love, serve and worship him there. As much as I applaud homeschoolers and support private schools, I say let’s remember that Jesus hasn’t turned his back on the students, teachers and families of America’s public schools, and we shouldn’t, either.