Opinion

Should Christians abandon public schools?

An abandoned desk remains in a closed school in New Orleans in November 2011. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Tiffany Bailey

(RNS) Just as Republicans take the reins of power in Washington, a controversial trend has emerged in evangelical circles: Influential thought leaders are advocating withdrawal from public life in order to preserve historical Christian beliefs.

That includes withdrawal from public schools and other public institutions.

But what would a large-scale Christian withdrawal from civic life look like?

How would it affect America’s public schools and our nation’s children?

How does disengagement from civic institutions align with Jesus’ life and his command to love our neighbors as ourselves?

Rod Dreher, whose book “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation” calls for this Christian exodus, says Christians must invest in institutions that support our historical faith and practices, especially our churches. I agree.

I also agree with radio personality James Dobson that parents are charged with the responsibility to educate and make disciples of their children. But I part ways with any conclusion that results in a blanket call to abandon public education.

Deeming one or two education options as the “godly” choice only serves to distract and divide.

Every child is unique, and parents are best-equipped to determine the right school setting for each child.

School choice is the right of parents as they determine what is best for their children’s education and discipleship.

My own parents chose to home-school my brothers for a season, while I attended both public and private schools at various times. Now my husband and I serve as a founding family for a public charter school, even as we blend in home schooling for our eldest daughter.

There is no “one size fits all” schooling solution for Christian parents as we guide them to love the Lord with all their hearts, minds and strength.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supported this idea of school choice when she stated: “When it comes to the education of a child, I am agnostic as to the delivery system, or the building in which it takes place. If a child is able to grow and flourish, it shouldn’t matter where they learn. I support great public schools and I support great public school teachers.”

As the spirit of Christ calls us to love our neighbors, not just our own families, public school withdrawal appears particularly off target.

Our neighbors with access and financial means may enjoy many options for education: home schooling, Christian or private education, and public or charter schools.

Other families, due to location or income, health or family constraints, find their local public school to be their sole educational option. And let us not forget, most of our neighbor’s children are attending public schools, a full 90 percent of our nation’s 55 million students.

As Christians we can “love our neighbors as ourselves” by ensuring excellent education options for all children, including students in poverty, disabled students, English language learners and military families.

Each parent should be free to follow God’s guidance when determining the optimal  educational environment for growth and success of their child.

Some Christians who are most faithful in loving their neighbors are educators who feel called to work in public school classrooms. Should they be shamed into abandoning their commitment to live as salt and light within their communities?

I submit the wiser action is greater Christian commitment to improving public education, and many church leaders agree.

A 2014 Barna survey found that almost all Protestant pastors believe Christians should be involved in helping public schools. And nearly half of the nation’s public educators are practicing Christians — people who attend church at least monthly and say their faith is very important in their life.

Critics who claim Christian values have been removed from public schools are overlooking the witness and dedication of Christian teachers, counselors, administrators and coaches devoted to their students in public school classrooms.

Jesus serves as the clearest model for how Christians should live and love in our world. He served all he encountered, loving those in his community, serving those on the margins.

May we follow his lead as we serve those in our communities. We can be salt and light, and stay on mission, as we love our neighbors as ourselves.

A mass exodus of Christians would be disastrous for America’s public school students.

Instead, let’s engage with our communities as we honor the imago dei in every student, providing high-quality education opportunities to support their God-given potential. There is no single “godly” way to educate our children, so let’s empower parents to choose the best schooling environment for their children.

(Andrea Ramirez is executive director of the Faith and Education Coalition for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference)

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Andrea Ramirez

41 Comments

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  • Should Christians of a certain sort, who think the public schools are indoctrination of the young into the ways of abandoning the lord…

    Absolutely.

    And stop running for school boards and trying to impose your religious agenda on public schools, while you are at it.

  • Most Christians really seem to have no choice but to put their kids in public school. For some kids, including kids of color, public school will work out anyway.

    But for other kids, including kids of color, the parents seriously better work hard on finding a way to get a good charter school, a good church-based school, a good home-school gig, or at least get their kids AWAY FROM the lesser quality public schools and into the better quality public schools. No joke.

    PS……the non-Christian parents better do the same thing. Send your atheist child to a quality Catholic or Lutheran school and tell him he BETTER come back with all A’s, including all A’s in religion class.

  • YES! It’s about time! Christians have treated very badly! Public Schools are NO longer safe for any conservative! time for home Schooling or Private Schools. These Evil Dems have lost all sense of decency! Besides I believe these Public Schools are now indoctrinating students. Not teaching them!

  • Benedict Option for you sounds good, study up on how the Amish do things…and take your conservative Christian cohorts with you. The “evil Dems” won’t miss you.

  • Be careful what you ask for…I did many years in Catholic school…then I quickly became agnostic, then Buddhist, now a humanist and Atheist until someone can prove any god creatures exist.

  • Be thankful you went to that Catholic school anyway (assuming that you at least received a quality education on the usual secular topics.)

    That’s more than what a lot of public schools are offering, these days.

  • My grandson goes to a Catholic School. Better education than most public schools in the area. My son is an atheist but recognizes getting his son the best education he can afford.

  • Went seven years to Catholic grade school and received an excellent education. I then went directly into a non-religious preparatory school and qualified for every advanced course offered. Best choice my parents ever made.

  • I was a school teacher for many years in the public school system. Not a good place for children. Home school or private school that’s the way to go.

  • And please return the favor and stop indoctrinating our children in your gay lifestyle – or else the deal is off.

  • All myths about how bad the public schools are. Most of the best schools in the country are public schools, unless you are very wealthy. My kids are in public school now and our area supports the schools in a diverse community, which is a necessity.– couldn’t be happier. Where public schools have problems…are underfunded red states and crime ridden areas where schools have to deal with poverty and social problems.

    Private schools selectivity allows them to bypass poverty and crime. There is no real school choice in rural areas of the country…no private schools in very small towns, it is just the public school. Private or charter schools couldn’t get the enrollment. So much of this choice talk is unattainable.

    Some local Catholic schools leave a lot to be desired…where I live they are closing schools as the parishes empty out. Never had the best teachers in Catholic schools and there is still hangover from the abuse scandals, And spare us the legends about old-school nuns. Nobody scares kids into learning.

    The state that has schools which outrank even the best countries in educational attainment is Massachusetts, a blue state that strongly supports its public school system.

  • I think this a well written article. Each local public school system must be evaluated on its own merits, but for those who are able to pursue alternatives, I appreciate that option. All property owners must pay taxes to support the public system, but that doesn’t mandate that they make use of that system when superior alternatives are available. Still, when a public system performs admirably, by all means make use of it.

  • Public schools foster integration of students into the greater society by exposing pupils to various social, ethnic and economic groups. Widely supported public schools are needed to have a functioning society in which members have some understanding of each other. However, public schools must serve the needs of nearly all groups within a community. Public schools that truly serve the whole community will also gain more support from various economic and social groups within that community.

    To preserve some unity in society and mixing various groups, it is time to allow optional religious classes again within public schools. Offer parents or students elective classes with religious curriculum of a their choice or other courses for those not interested in religious studies. The teachers of religion could be funded by local faith groups while the facilities of school are offered. This of course would new to take a broader view of the First Amendment.

    In many countries with full freedom of religion and no state religion, schools of various religious backgrounds are support by government with text books, subsidies, teachers for non-religious subjects, etc.

    As for myself, I attended a Lutheran parish working class grade school and public junior and senior high schools. There are advantages in both systems. However both could be strengthen if each could share resources and support each other. I worked in a country with total religious freedom that supported religious schools and religious curriculum within public schools. local religions included Muslim, traditional religions, and a wide variety of Christian denominations.

  • “Some Christians who are most faithful in loving their neighbors are educators who feel called to work in public school classrooms. Should they be shamed into abandoning their commitment to live as salt and light within their communities?”

    I was, indeed, one of those who felt “called to work in public school classrooms.” In college I felt some kind of vague call to Christian service, and I explored it through the various subjects I studied during my first two years. By the time I was a Junior I had come to realize that my Christian calling was to serve as a public school teacher and administrator.

    An element that isn’t often mentioned in these discussions is the tremendous respect Christian teachers have for ALL students for their need to learn and grow, whether or not they arrive at school with a particular religion. That’s such a breath of fresh air for students with a strong religious orientation. It’s quite common for Christian students to suffer being put down by some of their teachers as “stupidly believing in myths and fairy tales!” These teachers take up what they consider to be the noble cause of liberating these students from the tyranny of their family’s religion to free up their minds from the superstitions of religion that will allow them to become truly enlightened!”

    Another element that often gets overlooked is the fact that Christian school teachers and administrators are not likely to tolerate the bullying of ANY student because of their religion. These public educators have a deep love for all students, and won’t tolerate bullying for ANY reason!

    “Salt and light” indeed!

  • Ben, I’m not sure what you’re saying in your first sentence here, but I strongly disagree with your statement about Christians not running to serve on public school boards.

    Adhering to the Christian faith does not mean that one have to give up either their interest or their duty to fulfill a civic role in their community! School boards need to welcome members who represent the Christians in the community. Of course that’s not license for Christian board members to dominate discussions and decision making, so as to “impose their religious agenda.” Secular school board members can easily balance things out by insisting on the fair treatment of ALL families–those with a faith orientation and those without one!

    I’ve had some experience in this area: I grew up in a community where a big majority believed dancing to be a sin. No one in this public school district was permitted to have a dance on school property! Even our Senior prom was held off campus, in the gym of a large Christian church that didn’t have a problem with kids dancing!

  • Jim, is that because the Catholic school is better or the public schools are poor to begin with? I’m curious. In my area (a very Catholic area, actually), Catholic schools tend to pay teachers less and leave out music and arts programs, which, I assume, results in a less well-rounded educational experience, especially when you throw in the religion classes. The Catholic schools here tend to be for those who either require a higher degree of discipline and/or require a mostly white environment.

  • It has been my observation that exposure to a variety of lifestyles in public schools (religions, cultures, sexual preferences, other demographics), provided it is done in a relatively safe environment, is more likely to result in more tolerant individuals. Although the environment may be less-than-ideal for Christians, it may be better for society at large (especially if it promotes “abandoning the lord” as Ben put it).

  • Perhaps, as a teacher in those schools, you share the blame for why they were not good places for children. Both my parents and my wife taught in public schools for their entire working lives, and I’m sure they would not agree with you.

  • I don’t know about that – They should ask for a refund if you’re the best they got.

  • “I was a school teacher for many years in the public school system. Not a good place for children.”

    Wow! I never thought I would agree with anything you had to say.

  • Back in the ’70’s/’80’s gays touted the their lifestyle. They used the term “lifestyle”. That was before the AIDS pandemic of the 80’s. Wasn’t so “gay” then.
    life·style
    ˈlīfˌstīl/
    noun
    the way in which a person or group lives.
    “the benefits of a healthy lifestyle”
    synonyms: way of life, way of living, life, situation, fate, lot; More
    denoting advertising or products designed to appeal to a consumer by association with a desirable lifestyle.
    modifier noun: lifestyle; modifier noun: life-style

  • Well, perhaps you share the blame in that response. And your character shines like turd nugget, too, DougSlug.

  • Sorry it wasn’t clear.

    What I was saying was that if Christians of that sort are so worried about their faith being contaminated in the public schools, then they should retreat. We had a discussion on that subject a few weeks ago at RNS.

    As for not running for school boards, I was really trying to say that they wish to impose their values on others, but are outraged if others impose their values on them.

  • Thanks for clearing that up, Ben. There are those from the Christian right who may try to impose their values on others. We trust the diversity of board members to bring about some balance during deliberations. The bonus for everyone, is the possibility that those so bent on persuading others of their values just might get shaken when they’re at least, EXPOSED to broader points of view!

    Great discussion!

  • I would think Catholic schools do a better job but I know my logic is face valid only. I do think Catholicism values higher education – not aware of too many non-university educated priests or nuns and I think of University of Notre Dame, Loyola, Georgetown etc as proof of there being a religious cultural value as to higher education so to speak. It has also been argued that public schools have a more diverse population including more special needs kids, Catholic schools have a more unified set of values strengthening school culture and that parents, like your son, also are acting in a more engaged manner as to outcomes when enrolling in a Catholic school.

    However, when the data is crunched it appears that what matters is SES and ‘like’ peers as to academic success. (Also ethnicity – Asian Americans for instance who attend top colleges/universities at a rate much higher than as their percentage of the population.)

  • I can’t imagine too many teachers would even be aware of students’ religious orientation especially at the elementary level. Teachers’ interactions with students and thus personal knowledge would be shaped by curriculum unless a very small community. And no teacher should be tolerant of bullying any student or actually bully any student – I see that as being part of professional conduct. And bullying even goes on in Christian schools – even with the teacher present.

  • Linda, we agree on the bullying point. What a shame it is that bullying goes on even with teachers present, in Christian schools.

    I have a little different take on teachers being aware of students’ religious orientation. I currently run a reading tutor-mentor program with around 100 volunteers in some 20 elementary schools. We work with second and third grade students who struggle to read at grade level. One thing we’ve learned is, at that age kids have NO filters! They’ll tell you practically anything! Little girls frequently wear cross-necklaces, and speak freely of their Sunday school teachers and Bible stories they’ve heard.

    Early in my career I served as a teacher and school principal. Students were very reticent about sharing anything about their family’s faith orientation. I imagine it’s the same way with middle school students.

    Great discussion!

  • They’ll miss our money tho. Lol
    And 8th grade amish kids do better on stand. tests than most public school kids. And for a fraction of the cost.

  • Ramirez conflates two issues, whether Christians should pull their children out of public schools and whether Christians should continue to work in public schools. It’s easily possible for Christians to serve at schools that they would be unwilling to have their own children attend — after, the secular indoctrination isn’t aimed at the teachers. But his main point is spot-on, it needs to be a case-by-case decision rather than an across-the-board exodus.

  • I live in one of the bluest states and cities around, but we still have underfunded school problems. In fact the state has been sued about it.

  • By all means if Christians of a certain type feel annoyed about public schools are not doing enough to indoctrinate students to their faith and beliefs, they should take their children out of public schools and pay for religious schooling.

    We can all do without having to put up with nonsense like teacher led prayer, mandatory religious indoctrination classes and creationism in public schools.

    If they can’t afford private religious schools then maybe they should learn how to live in communities where they have to share public resources with those outside their faith and be more respectful to the beliefs of others.

  • As I say with anyone wanting to exercise the “Benedict Option” is how can we miss you if you haven’t left yet? By all means don’t threaten it, just go. Don’t let the door hit you in the way out.

  • The line of thinking promoted in this article is the same that has caused an 8-10% decrease of Christians in the US for every generation since the Silent Generation. Now 42-44% of millennials are atheists, agnostics or pagans. That’s a 20% + increase since the baby boomers. Much like well intentioned social programs, the only result of this worldly conformity is harm. That’s harm to the innocents by feeding them to the leftist wolves clothed as public school peers, teachers, admins, local, state and national officials.

  • We wouldn’t feel the need to try to influence the public school board if they would just leave the sexual education and LBGTQ stuff for the parents to teach according to their religious sensibilities. Schools need to be places that simply teach reading, writing, mathematics, and science without having to go into the theories of how the world came into being.
    Parents should have a right to have the ultimate say in their children’s education.

  • If they want that right, they should home school their children.

    There is no LGBTTQ “stuff” to teach children, except in the minds of religious people who hide bigotry behind religious belief. Gay kids should have exactly the same rights and protections that every other kid has, including the right to accurate information about who they are. I was a kid that was beat up for being the obviously gay one. The crap that parents were teaching their children, with the imprimatur of their churches, was responsible.

    Sex education is not about indoctrination, it is about accurate and responsible information. Parents are per fectly free to teach their children whatever passes for morality in their households.

    If you are so threatened by gay people living as free as heterosexuals do, or accurate information, homeschooling is your openly option. Or you can send your children to religious schools that reflect your world views.

  • Just for your notice, this article is 2 years old.

    For reasons known only to Disqus and RNS the system occasionally pops up some old crap into the summary of the latest crap.

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