Leaders of a rapidly growing movement of conservative Christians are urging followers to withdraw their children from public schools in order to bring down the government school system.
At least four organizations have sprung up around the country to press parents to abandon what fund-raising letters describe as "atheistic" and "unclean" public schools in favor of home schooling and Christian academies.
The movement, which is just beginning to surface among mainstream evangelicals, bills itself as a way to "trump" public education by offering strategies to "thoroughly supplant the corrupt government school system."
This is dangerous hogwash, said Lee Berg, an expert on the religious right at the National Education Association in Washington.
"Public education happens to be the foundation of democracy," said Berg, a Southern Baptist ethicist from Houston who battled the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s. "It's where our diverse society learns to live with each other."
The movement is gathering steam at a time when the nation's public schools are under siege. Many schools are battling violence, drugs, racial strife, funding and poor educational performance while facing challenges from the growing support for school voucher programs and charter schools.
The movement's leaders have gained the endorsement of the Rev. D. James Kennedy, an influential conservative Christian broadcaster who heads Coral Ridge Ministries in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. His Center for Reclaiming America was behind a national anti-gay rights advertising campaign featuring "former homosexuals." Another endorser is Tim LaHaye, a conservative political activist and author of 43 books, including the spectacularly successful Left Behind novels based on the Book of Revelation.
"The Christian Right has been calling on the nation to correct all these social and moral problems we have," said the Rev. E. Raymond Moore, a South Carolina minister who founded Exodus 2000 just over a year ago. "We're trying to stop pornography and eradicate abortion, and yet we have not been obedient to God on the biblical mandate for educating our own children. Perhaps the renewal of the culture could be as simple as the Christian church renewing its obedience to that biblical mandate."
He also said that if evangelical Christians exited en masse, "this event could seriously cripple the power that secularism now holds over our culture by holding our children as near-hostages in state schools."
The "death to the schools movement," as one conservative Christian described it, is spearheaded by Moore and three other men. One is Brannon Howse, founder of Exodus Project in St. Paul, Minn., who believes public schools are so anti-Christian that those who don't agree with the secular state's world view will be discriminated against and ultimately stuck with a bad education that will prevent them from succeeding as adults.
Another is Robert Simonds, founder of the Irvine, Calif.-based Citizens for Excellence in Education, which during the 1980s fought well-publicized textbook battles over religious issues and urged conservative Christians to run for school board seats. He is now organizing Rescue 2010, whose fund-raising letters describe public schools as places where Christians are "spiritually raped."
Fritz's group is the most eclectic--it includes a sprinkling of Jews and Muslims as well as people who are motivated not so much by theology but by political philosophy.
"There is no peaceful solution to the school wars other than the separation of school and state," said Fritz, a Roman Catholic. "It's the only plan that has in it the makings of a turnaround of American culture. We're falling like a stream-lined brick into the toilet."
Government-sponsored schools are bad, Fritz said, because they shift what he believes is a parent's duty to educate children to the state; they keep God out of children's education; and they coerce homeowners to pay for their own children's education, as well as the education of non-homeowners, who don't pay property taxes.
He said that if the public school system crumbles, citizens would realize a $300 billion tax cut, which means two-thirds of the population would be able to afford private school tuition. He expects churches and charities to pick up the rest of the tab.
Berg, of the NEA, said many conservative Christians genuinely believe there is a conspiracy afoot in public schools to destroy their values, though he vigorously disputed that claim.
But Berg also said some Christians use that explanation as a cover for their real reasons for pushing home schooling and Christian academies in an attempt to abolish state-sponsored education: dislike of ethnic and racial minorities who attend public schools and a desire to make money by opening private schools that will need supplies and curricula.
"When I first stumbled across this movement, my concern wasn't over the impact. I don't believe you'll see millions of people leaving the public schools," said Berg. "But I do think there is continual damage done to public education by demonizing it."
The movement is poised on the edge of controversy in its own ranks.
"This is going to be a hotter and hotter issue," said Jody Capehart, national education director for the Dallas-based Every Church a School Foundation and founder of Prestonwood Christian Academy in Dallas as well as other Christian schools around the country.
She predicted there would be major conflict among conservative Christians over the issue within six months. She sees a split between those who believe all evangelicals must pull their children out of public schools and others, like herself, who think the movement should also support Christian parents whose children remain in the public system.
"We want to support them while they're still in there, rather than mandating all good Christians leave immediately," said Capehart, whose organization helps churches start schools and supports evangelical educators and parents. "What does this say to strong Christians who have made a statement in committing their lives to public schools?"
But the movements founders say state-sponsored education is too far gone. "The schools are not going to be fixed, nor should they be," said Moore, who home-schooled all four of his grown children. "They're really unbiblical at their core."
He hopes to persuade the parents of about 4 million children to abandon public schools.
There are about 52 million American children in public schools, according to education experts. Eight million, about 11 percent, are educated in private schools or at home, experts say. Moore estimated that half of the second group is composed of evangelical Christians. But he said that between 12 million and 15 million evangelical Christian children still attend public schools."We don't think they're a safe place anymore for Christian children," he said. "The public school system is doing more harm now to the country than any single thing except perhaps the popular media."