Twice in the last few months, I've been told that I should put my two children in Christian school. My older daughter, in the throes of early adolescence, displays a mouthy attitude, a love affair with the telephone, and one or two friends whose families aren't regular churchgoers. My advisers see public schools as the problem and Christian schools as the answer, not just for me, but for America.
They're not alone. Plenty of religious conservatives see schools as Public Enemy No. 1.
Ray Moore of South Carolina began the "Exodus 2000" movement to convince Christian parents to pull their children out of public schools because they are "not biblical" and do "more harm to the country than any single thing except perhaps the popular media."
The Rev. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries in Florida, Tim LaHaye of the "Left Behind" novel series fame, and other prominent religious leaders have endorsed the movement.
Forrest Montgomery, counsel for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), says that "the general feeling among evangelicals is that public schools have major problems, especially in the inner city, with metal detectors, drugs, violence, and low test scores. In a typical Christian school, these aren't a problem."
In many public schools, these are not a problem either. Perception is a big nemesis for public schools, with some Christian parents bypassing excellent, safe public schools. Why? Many say they just feel more comfortable with their kids in Christian school.
At the heart of this discomfort is the centuries-old conflict over whether Christians should engage or separate from a culture hostile to Christian values.
The call from groups like Exodus 2000 is to withdraw. Paul Weyrich, one of the original architects of the religious right's political involvement, last year declared that groups like the Moral Majority "have lost the culture war."
Weyrich and other conservatives such as Cal Thomas are calling on the religious right to abandon their commitment to politics and get back to transforming the culture from the bottom up.
Public schools seem to be the perfect place to start. Yet Weyrich, Thomas, and others are calling Christian families to abandon public schools and separate themselves by educating their children in Christian or home schools.
The very voices that have lambasted the country for taking prayer out of public schools now advocate taking Christians out of public schools.
It may be easy to write off groups like Exodus 2000. But other trends point to dissatisfaction with public schools by more than the religious right. The call for vouchers, the explosion of charter schools, and a steady increase in home schooling suggest that many Americans are dissatisfied.
Last April, the mayor of Los Angeles declared the city's school system "a total failure." School shootings in Littleton and elsewhere have heightened concern about what is happening inside public schools. Analysts say education is the hot political topic of the presidential election.
Caught in the middle are parents who want to know whether the schools are doing a decent job of educating their children. Are public schools that bad? Are Christian schools that good?
Some conservatives long for the "good ol' days." Most education analysts, however, say that the golden age of public schools was a myth. Many students were excluded from those schools. And a higher level of skills is needed for today's workplace.
In general, home-schooled and private-school students score higher on achievement tests. Is this because private and home schools do a better job or because they start with better students? The answer seems to be yes to both questions.
But while private schools in general have a track record of higher academic performance, the difference is not overwhelming.
Chester Finn, a conservative education analyst who likes private schools, told National Review "we poke our heads in the sand if we think they're doing a swell job." He points to the National Assessment reading results from 1994 that showed that slightly less than half of private-school students were proficient readers (compared with 32 percent in public schools) and 16 percent were below the basic level (compared with 31 percent in public schools).Clearly, low academic achievement is a real, not an imagined concern for America's schools, both public and private. I should know.
I have taught students in freshman composition classes at a private college with a good academic reputation. I was appalled at what I found. Students could not identify subjects or verbs, write complete sentences, read and understand essays, or spell.