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Insights & Opinions | November 6, 2012

Stand for public education


Despite its many flaws, the nation's school system provides an opportunity for Christian students, teachers and administrators to be salt and light

©iStockPhoto/kristian sekulic

If you've been on a Christian college campus lately or in a church with educational diversity, you've likely noticed the chasms that can exist between various Christian groups: homeschoolers, private schoolers, and public schoolers.

In the last 20 years, differences of temperament and pedagogy have become more apparent. Marvin Olasky acknowledged as much a few weeks ago when he wrote a piece defending WORLD's running a few stories on homeschooling.

Rachel Lonas knows this too. Like me, Rachel spent her K-12 years in public school in Tennessee, then enrolled at a private Christian college where the student body split almost perfectly in three between homeschoolers, private and public schoolers. She earned her bachelor's degree in education then quickly accepted a job in the same school system she grew up in. Six years later, Rachel and her husband have two kids. She's no longer teaching in the public system but will be teaching again soon: she and her husband will homeschool their kids.

Rachel now lives in that tension familiar to so many. Leery of the backlash from her former peers, she readily outlines the advantages homeschooling can provide. "I wanted a high level of discourse for our children, flexibility in schedule, coupled with a Christ-centered structure being prioritized in our home," she told me. "It's not impossible to receive some of those same benefits from a normal classroom, but I know it's a lot harder in traditional schools because everything is so rushed and Christ is generally not welcomed."

I'm familiar with this tension too, albeit in a much less immediate sense. While I was the product of the public education system, my wife is a pedagogical mutt. She spent time in public schools, a Christian private school, and at home educated by her parents. With two young boys, education is on our minds and frequently on our tongues. Armed with our experiences, I would echo the last line of Olasky's piece for WORLD. I am for homeschooling, and I am for private Christian schooling.

But I would also add one more: I am for public schools.

Let me explain.

It's no secret the public education system is broken. Even though I'm proud of the education I received in Chattanooga, Tenn., it seems my case may have been the exception, not the rule. SAT scores among public schoolers are as low as they've ever been. The Washington Post reported in September that only 57 percent of test takers scored high enough to indicate success in college. Flawed as it is to base everything on standardized tests, that's abysmal. Meanwhile, we're spending more tax dollars on public education than we ever have. Obviously, money isn't the magic bullet progressivism claims it is.

So why would I be for public schools? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, we're seeing record enrollment in our public schools this year. Nearly 50 million students have enrolled this fall, compared to only 5.3 million private school students and even fewer homeschool students. Our schools are failing, but they're failing a huge swath of our youth. They're failing young men and women who in a generation will be our elected officials, our civic leaders, our businessmen and women, our kids' teachers and administrators. For a host of reasons, we must admit the public school system won't go away. Too many families can't afford any other option. So, I think the real question is: How can we afford not to be for public schools?

I don't mean that those of us who were homeschooled or private schooled should feel guilt or remorse. I don't mean we young parents should uproot our kids from their current classrooms and toss them into the public school abyss. Of course some may be called to do that. I can attest that a public education won't ruin you.

So how should we be for public schools? Certainly we need Christians teaching in the public school system, and we need Christian administrators in the system. We also need better public education policy. The movement toward charter schools I think is a good one, but it won't be enough.

And certainly we need Christian students in our public schools, being the salt and light the Gospel calls us to. I say that with caution, while urging extreme prudence for parents. Ever since John Dewey became an educational powerhouse in the early 20th century, the rampant secularization of our schools has marched forward relentlessly. You can see what that bankrupt worldview has done to our students. This will not be the best thing for all Christian students, maybe not even most. But it's something we should grapple with.

But one thing we all can do to improve our public schools is to let the spheres of society often left unmentioned by progressives - family, church, and the local community - help correct the problem. Get involved in your neighborhood. So many struggling public school students lack those structures supporting them, hence the untenable growth of the school system's reach.

Rachel Lonas put it well: "I would be remiss if I didn't point to the ultimate solution - keeping strong, supportive families a vital part of the community. Strong families flow from communities that have been touched by the love of Christ. The biggest way to improve schools is through Christians reaching out to their neighbors and tangibly demonstrating a love and concern for them individually, for their marriage, for their children."

That's how we all - private-, home- and public-schooling families alike - should be for public education.

Michael Reneau is communications manager for Summit Ministries, a worldview education ministry based in Manitou Springs, Colo. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelReneau.