Is sending your child to public school an option for Christian parents? At least one prominent evangelical leader says, “no”.
Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, asks and answers his own question about public education and Christians in a post on answersingenesis.org “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.
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.
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.