Is Public School an Option?

Is sending your child to public school an option for Christian parents?  At least one prominent evangelical leader says, “no”.

Empy Classroom
Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, asks and answers his own question about public education and Christians in a post on   “Is public school an option? For Christians who take the Christian worldview seriously and who understand the issues at stake, the answer is increasingly no.”

While I can agree with what I know of Dr. Mohler’s theological views, I think his stance on public education, at least in this article, is unhelpful.

The Dangers of Public Education
The bulk of the article details what Mohler calls an “ideological revolution” in public schools.  He cites factors like the erosion of local control, the advance of the progressivist agenda, and policies imposed by “an army of educational bureaucrats” as reasons Christians should re-think public education for their kids.

Then after building a sufficiently frightening case for why Christians should distrust the public school system, Mohler ends his article simply by saying, “Long ago, the public schools entered a Brave New World from which no retreat now seems possible.”  So the grand conclusion for Christians and public schools is, “Abandon ship!”

A Closer Look at Public Education
I spent seven years as both a teacher and a principal at a public charter school in a rural town. I’ve seen positives and negatives.  So I do not intend to suggest that parents must send their kids to public schools.  On the contrary, I will not and must not defend schools that have descended into bold godlessness.  Christians must consider any environment that scoffs at God and His ways a hazard.   But neither do I suggest that parents must not send their kids to public schools. I advocate for awareness and engagement.

There Are Children Here
First, let’s examine public education a bit more closely.  Nearly 50 million of America’s kids are educated in public schools.  So even if you don’t send your own child to a public school, if Christians are concerned about their neighbors they will be concerned about their schools.  When it comes to public education, neither ignorance nor apathy is an option.

Not Every School is in the Same Ideological Place 
Second, while the progress of the secular humanist agenda seems inexorable it is not advancing at the same rate in all places.  In the South, where I live, Christianity is still the culture.  Many schools have no problems with saying prayers before ball games or with calling a child’s pastor if his or her parents are unavailable.  Secular ideology is as distasteful to many public school educators and administrators as it is to the President of Southern Seminary.

The Risks at Colleges and Universities
What about college?  It seems that when students go to college and get exposed to the limitless array of alternative viewpoints they begin to question the faith they learned while growing up.  Do Christians like Dr. Mohler hold consistent objections to all public schooling?  Does this include publicly funded state colleges and universities?  Don’t institutions of higher education often prove more hazardous to a student’s faith than elementary, middle, or high schools?  Perhaps when Christians point to the ideological dangers of public K-12 education they draw attention away from the more serious threats to faith coming from colleges and universities.

The Strong Influence of Parents and the Community
Also, parents and the community have more than a nominal role in shaping a child’s views.  In his article Mohler says, “The duty of Christian parents to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord cannot be delegated to anyone else–not to the state, not to the schools, and not even to the church.”  This is true.  So if parents are a child’s first educators we shouldn’t underestimate their influence.  Nor should we discount the impact that other family members, friends, the community, and the church all have in shaping a student’s worldview.

Do Justice

There’s also an element of justice at play.  Whatever ills the public schools exhibit they are highlighted in high minority, high poverty environments.  Oftentimes the brokenness of public schools inordinately affects Blacks, Hispanics, other ethnic minorities, and the poor.  So this an Isaiah 1:17 moment for Christians.  “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”  Christians should care about public schools because they care about socially and economically vulnerable kids.

The Information Gap
In addition, many Christians are uncritical and uninformed about public education.  Their most recent firsthand knowledge of the schools dates back to when they themselves were students.  But our past experiences with public education, whether positive or negative, are poor indicators of the current climate in the schools right now.  Each state, district, town, and school must be evaluated on its own terms.  This goes for Christian schools, private schools, and homeschool co-ops as well.  But instead of ferreting out the facts for themselves, it’s much easier on someone else’s opinions and conclusions.  But relying mainly on memory or blog posts for information about public schools invites damaging distortions.

Schools are Actually in Trouble…Now What?
Yet Dr. Mohler is partly right.  The public schools, by and large, are in trouble.  Schools in inner-city and rural areas are in particularly precarious positions.  What we don’t need, however, is thoughtful Christians left feeling guilty for exercising their biblical liberty.  Nor do we need Christians retreating inward in order to protect themselves from the evils of a free public education.

Instead of merely describing their ideological differences, leaders like Al Mohler should propose creative ways Christians can be “good neighbors” in their communities by helping improve educational options for all.

Toward Solutions
He could have encouraged Christians to influence their local public school boards by attending meetings or even helping get qualified believers elected.  He could have advised them to mobilize their church to “adopt a school”  He might have recommended Christians educate themselves on policy issues related to education.  Or, perhaps most importantly, he could have suggested that individuals and churches start and support Christian schools, especially in the inner-city and rural areas.  Perhaps Dr. Mohler has made these suggestions and more elsewhere, but he didn’t in this article.

Some may think I exaggerate or simply imagine the reader response to a post like Mohler’s.  But I’ve interacted with far too many evangelical Christians who read an article like this one and adopt scathing stereotypes about public schools.  I’ve had the conversations.  I’ve listened to the unfounded fears and I’ve felt their self-righteous judgment.

Christians can send their kids to public school and not be theologically negligent.  They can also send their kids to private schools, Christian schools, or home school them, too.  An entire post spent detailing the drawbacks of public education without pointing to solutions or exhorting readers to get more involved merely engenders stereotypes.

Dr. Mohler’s tone is indicative of many evangelicals.  He is not the only person who has given these impressions of public education.  I don’t mean to single him out.  I simply came across his post and saw it as an opportunity to address the perception of public education among some Christians.

My conviction is that Mohler and other Christian leaders should rally believers to invest themselves and their resources in finding solutions in education not just raising suspicions.

17 thoughts on “Is Public School an Option?

  1. My first comment is about your use of the term, “free public education.” In my state, citizens who own property are taxed to pay for the “free” schools. Many Christians still support public education financially, even if they choose to keep their own children out of those schools. Whatever alternative they choose for their own children is at an additional expense to themselves.

    If the God of the first commandment is real, then He is offended by the religious neutrality that must be practiced in public schools.

    If we could get religious neutrality and free health services (birth control and sex education) out of the public schools, they might become a viable option Dr. Mohler could live with.

    One way this might be able to happen is to set aside two periods for religious and health education, and then invite local pastors and physicians to offer these courses, and let parents choose which variety their children get taught.

    A cooperative arrangement of this type may be able to overcome the objections Christians have to morally bankrupt public schools.

    1. Thanks for your comments. You’re right, public education isn’t “free” per se, but it’s often much more affordable than private schools or Christian schools.

      I hadn’t heard the option of alternative health and P.E. classes before. There could be some potential there…

      1. You may be making false assumptions about the relative costs of different schools. I had a pair of high-school immigrants staying with me. Since they were legal visitors to the US, they had to pay tuition at the public high school. (Of course, illegal immigrants can go free!) Something happened to the public school’s authorization to teach aliens (it was just after 9/11) and the students were not able to go to the public school the next year. So we enrolled them in the private school.. We were shocked to find that the tuition was about one half that of the public school! (And the teachers are paid less, etc., etc.)

  2. Jemar,

    Thanks for the article. Thanks also for filling our pulpit so well at Jubilee. I was sad to miss it. The heart I hear in your article is that we must love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This ethic has too long been missing from the education discussion. In inner-city Minneapolis one of our elders was moved by that ethic to quit his job at a suburban private school to start an inner-city private school. That school, Hope Academy has been a powerful demonstration of the power of God. I would commend it as a remarkable model of what is possible. It isn’t the way. It is a way.
    At our church this year a retired home-school mother has begun homeschooling two young men who were having very troubled public school experiences. It has really been a blessing, it is changing their outlook on life. Again, not the way, but a way.
    Some of our public schools in Minneapolis are deeply broken. One of the young men in our ministry was the only person in his class to disagree that homosexuality was a positive reality. He received a call home from the principal afterwards. The climate is getting more and more challenging.
    I praise God for my friends who are ministering in public schools! We just have to keep trying to find the best possible ways love our neighbors. Looking out for ourselves only is definitely not a Biblical option.

    John Erickson

    1. I appreciate the grace in your comments Pastor John. This subject often generates a lot of emotion that makes conversation difficult.

      I’ve heard many good things about Hope Academy and pray for more such endeavors. I believe urban Christian schools have untold potential to impact kids and the city for Christ.

      The woman at your church who has begun homeschooling is another excellent example of how Christians can be part of the solution for education in this country.

      I know the Prince of the Power of the Air and our own sin darkens the minds and hearts of many, especially in our schools. I simply hope that Christians release that even as we exercise wisdom in how we educate our kids we still need to work toward justice and righteousness in our country’s institutions.

      Thanks for reading!

      P.S. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with your church family. By all accounts you’re shepherding well. Praise God!

  3. Great article! I teach at a private high school, for many of the reasons that Dr Mohler listed, and I appreciated this response. I do think Christians should be challenged more to work with inner city children, because that is a huge missing element in Christian schools it seems.

    One thing I might say about your section on the risk to students losing faith at college: I think that most who leave the church once they leave home either never made a serious attempt at answering the challenging questions of faith while in high school (eg, they were merely drug to church), or they had very weak answers (or more simply, they were never regenerate to begin with, but that is out of our hands). I think a very effective response to this phenomenon is not to shift blame to the colleges who ask the hard questions, but to provide space for growing teenagers to answer these questions while still under the care of their parents before going out ‘alone in the world.’ I think that can best be done in a homeschool or Christian school environment, where teachers are constantly challenging assumptions, but always pushing students toward a Christian worldview, not away from it.

  4. There are a lot of christian teachers and administrators where we live… lets not surrender this territory without a good fight. Our God is powerful and can do amazing things. I went to public schools (raised in a nonchristian home) and was brought to Christ by a fellow student. He grew up dirt poor, his mom was divorced and could barely make ends meet but he loved Jesus and loved me. God Bless you Frank Hawkins!

  5. Thank you for your response. I, too read Dr. Mohler’s article. I’m a father and a pastor. I’m passionate about the gospel, missionally reaching my city for Christ and not throwing my lambs to the wolves. My kids are just approaching school age and the whole issue has led my wife and me too many tough conversations. As a pastor, financially speaking, private Christian school isn’t an option. Knowing many others are in this same boat, I left Dr. Mohler’s article wondering how many parents feel discouraged because they couldn’t possibly follow his advice purely from a financial standpoint. Making suggestions to help get involved, stave off further secular antagonism and missionally engaging our school (without sacrificing our children) to make things better.

  6. While I agree with you, I have a different reason why I side with the abandon ship mentality. Schools need students to attend in order to receive funds. Since the concerned parents are listened to with feigned interest, and progressive policies continue to progress, money has the commanding voice, not the concerned parent. As long as the schools receive their dollars by the attendance of children, they will continue down this path. With the advancement of political agendas taught as much or more as reading, writing, and arithmetic, creating a pop culture that is causing a division at home, a mass exodus of children leaving leaves a huge financial dilemma that will force a more active listening ear. Money, the god of this world any more, has the loudest voice. Yank the kids, and we just might have our chance to have a say in public education.

    I encourage parents to pull their kids out knowing how frightening that decision is. Once done, the feeling of fright changes to empowerment. Lots of navigation yet to go, but changing the power behind the kids to the parents and not the state, leaves room for a parallel educational business model in education to rise up.

    Even teachers don’t realize what they can accomplish, both in education and their own pockets if they abandon ship and craft a different private model. Ie; Private tutoring pays well. Opening a school house where a parent chooses the curriculum (video for young students) but an overseers direct and keep order, as well assist the child who is needing help, pushes children to use their minds and mature at a faster rate. This model would allow a mom to continue her career or go to work. Not that she wants to, but our economy is demanding it.

    Public schools don’t tap into the natural intelligence that children have. The kids are being dumbed down to a core curriculum that makes it easier for them to be controlled by the state.

    With the mention of money, I often forget that the union is also the driving force behind the teacher. Get the teachers out of the union (preferably destroy the union) and we will get a higher level of teacher. There is that money god again.

  7. Jemar,
    Thank you for your thoughtful post on this issue. I am wondering if you are over/misunderstanding what Mohler was saying in his original post.

    A key phrase, as you have quoted, is that the answer to the question about sending kids to public schools is **increasingly** no. As I understand Mohler’s concerns here, he seems to be saying this: As it becomes more and more the case that my children are required by policy and philosophical commitment to participate in and rejoice in sin (as opposed to hearing about it and acknowledging its existence), then it becomes more likely that the requirement laid on me by the Scriptures is to educate my children through some other means than public education.

    When I was a student there were many things taught to me that were contrary to Biblical understanding. Evolution is a good example. However, I as a student was free and able to disagree and present the Biblical viewpoint. I was scoffed at by the other students, and my teacher certainly attempted to disabuse me of the notion that the Bible had anything to say about science, but I was not *required* to affirm the position of evolution in order to remain and receive my education.

    One of the areas that Mohler has been so helpful with (IMHO) is being a bellwether for what is coming from a worldview standpoint. He is sounding the call that it is going to be increasingly hard to participate in many things as the moral revolution that is currently taking place progresses. The post which you are responding to applies this analysis to education.

    It has already started, and it will not be long before students are required to affirm and celebrate the homosexual lifestyle. It will not be possible for our kids to protest this or changes that will come about as the transgender issue and resulting policies become more commonplace without being suspended or expelled or worse.

    As these things increase so also will our inability to use public schools as viable means of educating our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. That is what appears to be the thrust of Mohler’s post, not a clarion call to get out and abandon ship now.

    Your call to be engaged and to actively and honestly evaluate the school system that my kids are in is right on and well heard, for we are not there yet, though I do not think that it will be long in my case since my state has demonstrated a willingness to be an early adopter of the changes that are part of the moral revolution happening in our country. But I do not think that negates the message of Mohler’s post, we need to be vigilant, and **increasingly** willing to use other means to educate our kids.

  8. What about our neighbors childred who can’t get out of the system that easy? Are we abondoning them to the vaccum that Satan fills when Christians leave the schools? Do we love and care for our neighbors children the same as our own?

  9. Like you, I found Dr. Mohler’s article unhelpful. Unlike you, I didn’t say anything about it on my blog, because I was just a tad afraid of disagreeing with someone of that stature.

    My point of disagreement may be a bit different than anything Dr. Mohler addressed, but you did touch on it in your post. From where I stand, if a child is a regenerate believer, he or she is in no danger at a public school, regardless of the level of degeneracy or secular nature of the school. Either God will preserve his people or He won’t. I believe it is the former, and I often wonder at the apparent disconnect between those who profess the ‘P’ in TULIP and their actions to do God’s business for Him with regard to younger believers.

    For those who like to leap to the ad absurdum, no, I don’t think we should put our younger children in dangerous situations, but I also don’t think we should keep them out of a viable mission field because we are worried their feelings might get hurt. Are we raising them to be adherents of the ‘personal peace and prosperity’ bent (Schaeffer) or are we raising them to be on God’s mission?

    My kids have gone to both private Christian school (elementary) and public school (middle, JH, and HS). Their Christian walk has blossomed in public school, and their ability to articulate their faith to hostile non-believers has grown tremendously, as they get to practice that articulation on an almost-daily basis. There is no ‘cultural christianity’ at their public school (other than that held by some traditional bible-belt kids there). Moralism is not a problem they will have to deal with as they go off to college and young-adulthood.

    I am thankful for that.

  10. It seems like the discussion always moves away from love of neighbors kids to love of our kids. Why can’t we disagree with ANYONE who would abandon the neighbors.

  11. Thank you for this response to Mohler’s article. Your words regarding college and university education have been mine as well as my wife and I have debated about which vein of schooling to choose for our young boys. I think it goes further than that, however, and into the secular workplace. A job is the certain eventuality of all those going through the education systems. Most likely that job will be in a secular environment. If my wife and I cannot trust Christ, who reigns in our hearts and is head of our family, enough to guard our children as they are exposed to secular environments at a young age, how will we trust Him as they are forced into those environments as teenagers and adults? Rather than fearing what they will be exposed to at school, I have taken the perspective of using it as an opportunity to teach them about faith and life in a secular world. If my boys can learn to defend their faith in their own hearts in school at a young age, then they will be far more able to defend their faith in college and the secular workplace. It’s teaching them to preach the gospel to themselves, just as I have had to learn to do the same.

  12. Jemar —

    Thank you for this. For the past 3 years, our family has lived in the one of the most impoverished counties in the US. We homeschool our kids (we did so before we moved here), and we are very involved in the schools & with kids in extracurricular programs.

    Like you, I would not make the case that parents MUST put their kids in any specific education system (home, public, private). But even if we choose to not use public education, we have to be involved. As you said, most kids in this country are in public schools. As Christians, we cannot passively abandon ship.

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