I got into a really interesting discussion with a pastor online today about God and public schools. We talked about Adam Hamilton’s blog post a few days ago, and Adam’s views on God and public schools. While I agree with many of Adam’s points, and I greatly admire the work his church is doing to help some of the public schools in his area, I believe Adam is looking at the public education system, at least partly, through rose-colored glasses.
Before I go any further, let me clarify that I don’t endorse mandatory prayers and religious instruction in public schools. But in many cases, the religiously neutral public schools that Adam Hamilton envisions aren’t always so neutral—some are actually hostile toward religion. You see, religion is closely related to worldview, and if you don’t allow religion to play any role in education, then the worldview that is shaped in schools, whether intentionally or not, is going to skew toward atheism.
The argument, of course, is that it’s the job of parents and churches to teach religion, not the public schools. I agree with that (to a point) but in practicality, churches have at most two or three hours a week with kids, while schools have over ten times that amount. Even if you assume an hour a day of religious instruction in the home, you’re still looking at a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio in favor of schools. Now in a world where it’s really possible for schools to be religiously neutral, those ratios might work, but what about a world like ours where religious values are increasingly challenged in the classroom? And what about lower income parents who work multiple jobs and don’t have the time or energy to give their children as much religious instruction as they’d like?
It amazes me that many in our country have become so fired up over alleged government “intrusion” into health care, yet we’ve allowed the government to maintain a virtual monopoly over the education system for years. Think about that for a moment. We don’t want the government to have too much say about how we care for our bodies, but most of us have no problem letting government-run schools shape our kids’ minds every day. Granted, public education isn’t a monopoly if you’re wealthy and can afford a private school, but for everyone else, that’s what it is—a monopoly.
Don’t misunderstand me. There are many good, hard-working teachers and administrators in the public schools. But the system is flawed. The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has been so broadly interpreted in recent years that even the generic non-sectarian Judeo-Christian civil religion of years past is now taboo in the classroom. We expect educators to teach our kids about values and rights, but we tie their hands so they can’t even mention the one who gave us those values or created us with those rights. It’s very difficult to shape values without bringing God into the picture. And if you think schools aren’t a place where values and morals are shaped, you’re kidding yourself.
Education is the new civil right, and I believe that in the years ahead, more people are going to see the need for bringing competition and choice into the education system. If America truly wants to be a land of equal opportunity, then we need to make it possible for lower income parents to send their children to the same schools wealthier families have access to. The most efficient way to do this is with vouchers. Under a voucher system, some parents would choose to send their children to private religious schools, and some would choose non-religious private schools. Some would choose traditional public schools, while others would choose charter schools and other non-traditional public schools. Some would choose to homeschool their kids. But no one would be forced to spend 7 hours a day in a failing school or in a school that teaches values that ignore or oppose the values taught at home or in their family’s religious community. And many public schools would improve if they were required to actually compete for public funding.
Nowadays we hear a lot about church planting. New churches are exciting, and they’re certainly needed. The more the merrier! But we also need more congregations that are interested in planting and subsidizing schools, especially in areas where the public schools are failing. It’s not fair to lower income kids to make them wait for their schools to be fixed, and we can’t afford to wait for politicians to see the light on school choice. Christians can act now and take the lead on fixing the education problems in this country. And we can do it by starting new schools.
Wouldn’t it be great if that became as hip as church planting?