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.
The work ethic of students from private schools did seem to be stronger, but I was not impressed that they were significantly better prepared academically than their public-school counterparts. Indeed, my best students consistently came from a performing arts high school, a public school.
Some parents believe that inner-city schools are the only ones with real academic problems. Although many of these schools are failing miserably, Chester Finn rightly points out that "millions of middle-class children from two-parent families are emerging from serene suburban schools without acceptable skills or knowledge."
Without my torturous stint in a college classroom, I might have denied this claim. But I now believe that the educational crisis is real.
As much as we want to accuse the religious right of undeserved public-school bashing, their accusations are not entirely undeserved.Moral Education
The main gripe of religious conservatives, however, is not about low academic achievement in public schools. They rise up in arms about secular humanism, relativism, and the values vacuum that they say characterize public schools. Once again, their gripes are not entirely without merit.
In the '60s, "values clarification" deliberately avoided teaching right and wrong. In later years, teachers were encouraged to teach moral reasoning but not to promote specific values. Some teachers got the message that it was not their job to teach values, and so they avoided any discussion of right and wrong. For years, the emphasis has been on teaching academics and avoiding the controversy attached to teaching values.
In addition, there have been a few schools in which a strong liberal agenda was promoted as a way to teach kids tolerance for homosexuality, abortion, and contraception. Though highly publicized, these schools are the radical exception, not the norm. Most schools reflect the values of their communities.
Schools and communities now also acknowledge that moral education is a central part of educating students. Many school systems now include a character-education program as part of their curriculum. Schools are finding that character-education programs are helping them fight teenage pregnancy, absenteeism, and cheating. Character-education programs also provide a natural tie-in to schools for churches and religious leaders.
Many schools, superintendents, and school boards are beginning to realize that a church-school partnership serves [everyone]. One Southern California district began an ongoing "common ground task force" with community representatives to develop a character-education program and discuss religious issues.
Including abstinence-based sex-education programs also shows the growing awareness by schools that churches have something to offer students. An abstinence-only sex-education class was offered last fall at Osseo High School in suburban Minneapolis. Although the course doesn't replace the standard "comprehensive" sex-ed class, students were given the choice after persistent parents and the Minnesota Coalition for Adolescent Health persuaded the school board to include the curriculum.
While some groups, including Planned Parenthood, argue that abstinence should be presented as an option along with information about contraception, many local districts use only abstinence-based programs because of input from parents and churches and the desire to reflect the community's wishes. The non-religious version of Focus on the Family's video "Sex, Lies, and the Truth" has been shown in 25,000 public schools.
This new kind of moral education is having an impact. The number of teenagers having sex dropped 11 percent in the 1990s. This kind of openness to churches and the practical morality they can provide is one sign that significant influence is possible.
Another common complaint about public schools is that they are hostile to Christianity. Many schools, encouraged by groups like the ACLU, fear that any mention of religion brings lawsuits.
The pendulum, however, seems to be swinging back toward the center. In 1995, the Christian Coalition, People for the American Way, and 15 other politically diverse groups called on schools to "ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education." The Clinton administration also issued guidelines to help schools determine how to teach religion in a way that maintains separation of church and state. Equal-access laws for student-initiated religious activity also mean that students can use schools for prayer groups, Bible studies, and rallies like "See You at the Pole."
These developments encourage Christians like Oliver Thomas, a constitutional lawyer who is chairman of his local school board in Tennessee. "School boards and administrators, for their part, seem to be bending over backwards to make sure that religion is treated with fairness and respect," he says.
School districts in 22 states now use Bible-instruction materials produced by the National Council of Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, the council reports. U.S. News and World Report found that 20 districts in North Carolina offer some form of Bible instruction. Texas has 219 classes in public schools on biblical history or literature.
Forrest Turpen, executive director of the Christian Educators Association International, points to California as further evidence. Sixth-grade textbooks there cover Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount and 10 Old Testament books. "Lots of things are going on throughout the country that show an increased openness to including the Bible as part of the curriculum," Turpen says.
While acknowledging that public schools "are in the grip of powerful negative forces," such as the breakdown of families and neighborhoods, Turpen believes the church has swallowed and perpetrated the "lie of Satan that God has been ruled out of the public schools."Since students are free to take Bibles to school, pass out tracts and pray, Turpen says, God is not absent.
Formed to support Christian teachers in public schools, Turpen's organization also points to approximately 650,000 Christian teachers in 81,000 schools who can have a positive influence. "If churches would see these Christians as part of a great missions force and pray for them, we would see an even greater impact in schools," he says.
Not My Kid
Our family is choosing to stick with public schools.
Our decision came down to seeing public schools as our schools. As part of this community, we have a stake in making sure public schools serve and reflect our community well. That means caring about whether other children are getting a good education, not just our kids.
Should we care about a flawed institution that doesn't always reflect our values? We believe so. And keeping our children in public schools keeps the pressure on us to help influence and improve the system. As Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
The sad thing is, most of us don't see all students as treasures, just the ones that belong to us. If we did, we might become mentors, start tutoring programs, or provide after-school care. We might get to know kids like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and offer them hope and community. We might rub shoulders and share lunches with a hurting world.
As Christians, we may be unable to turn the public schools around; it's a messy, risky business with much at stake. But even if all we can do is love people, influence some decisions for good, and show up to care, it's still worth it.