Do you hear that buzz? That’s the sound of the hornet’s nest at which I’m about to throw a big rock. There are few topics out there that can generate more knee-jerk, dig-in-your-heels, I’m-right-and-I-know-it arguments than that of how best to educate children. I already know that I’m going to be told I’m wrong, foolish, and raising heathens-ready-to-hatch by one group and yet another will clap me on the back and call me bright and intelligent. Still others will simply look at me and shake their heads in pity over the poor fool who has sent his kids off to be brainwashed by the state. Yet, like a kid who’s just been triple-dog-dared, I’m winding up to throw my rock in the direction of the hum of angry wings and stingers. But first, a few clarifications.
Clarification #1: This article is written about why my children go to public school NOW in our current circumstance. My children have also been educated in a Christian private school when circumstances were different, so rather than read into this article a condemnation of alternative methods of schooling, take it for what it is: an explanation of why we allow our kids to go to public schools (although their experience in a private school and my experience teaching in one does give me a unique insight.)
Clarification #2: I believe wholeheartedly that the most impactful education begins and ends in the HOME. If parents think that instruction ends when school ends, even if that “school” is in your spare room, then you are failing your child and need to repent.
Clarification #3: Even though I am not attacking other methods of education, by the nature of comparison, there might be some perceived collateral damage. For instance, when I say public schools are more diverse, it may be perceived that I’m attacking a private schools as being too uniform. This is not the case. I realize many different types of kids go to private schools, but that does not make them more or even equally as diverse as a public school, and as we will see, this is a statement of fact, not opinion.
Okay, now that the first rock has sailed out of my hand, let’s run with this.
Public Schools Are More Affordable
Let me go ahead and get this one out of the way. I have read several articles on why Christians elect to use public schools for their child’s education, but nearly none of them list finances as a reason. For me, this would be disingenuous. Compared to private schools, public schools are MUCH less expensive. I don’t have an extra $2000-$5000 dollars lying around per month to spend on grade school education. I’m hardly going to have that much to put my kids through college. As a minister in a single income family, the financially responsible thing to do is eliminate private schooling as an option. “But what about home schooling?” you ask. By the time you purchase the materials, textbooks, teaching tools, etc. homeschooling can rack up the costs too (although nowhere near the rate of a private school). Nope, when we looked at our wallet, this family saw that public schooling was the best option, but believe me when I say that finances were not the deciding factor.
Public Schools Are More Diverse
Having spent four years as an instructor in a small, “affordable”, Christian private-school I feel I stand on solid ground when I say this. Yes, we had students from different faith backgrounds and different political views. We had students from various races and family dynamics. But, the vast majority were from white, upper-middle class families that would identify themselves as some denomination of Christian. They could afford private school, so that automatically put 90% of the student body in a similar tax bracket (ironically, the exception to this were the staff children, who were given free tuition, otherwise the majority of the staff could not afford to send their kids there). The black kid in class was the exception, not the rule. You could count the number of Asian kids in grades K-12 on one hand. The same could be said for hispanic students. If I ever taught a class with more than 3 minorities in it, the memory escapes me.
Now compare that to the school system my children now attend where 45% of students are white, 35% are black, 5% are multi-racial and 15% are hispanic/Asian/other. Not only that, but every financial bracket is represented from wealthy to dirt-poor. Ideas run amok. Ideologies are espoused left and right. Discussions happen at lunch tables that my children don’t often agree with, yet they give their input as to why, and they learn how to live with people who are very different than they are. Why is diversity important? Because of reason number three.
Public Schools Allow for Freer Expression of Ideas
I want my children to be missionaries to the world, and the world is vastly non-Christian. I want my kids to encounter different ideas, and think through them and decide whether those ideas are right and wrong. Does this mean I have no input? Absolutely not. At the beginning of every week I leaf through my children’s textbooks to get an idea of what they are learning. Our dinner table conversations are amazing. We discuss evolution vs. creationism. Socialism vs. democracy. Pro-life vs. pro-choice. Gay-marriage, race riots, confederate flags and the latest pop-music lyrics. These discussions take place at the dinner table in our home so that my children have an informed opinion at the cafeteria table the next day.
But I also teach them how to respond. What we say is just as important as how we say it. My oldest has a tight-knit circle of friends, several of whom are Christians. But there’s also an atheist and a Wiccan thrown in for good measure. Through the years they have had some “discussions” concerning religion. My daughter’s faith is stronger for it, and when she leaves home, and goes to college or the work force I know her faith can stand up to different ideologies.*
Now compare this to my experience with private schools. My wife was a literature teacher. As such she was charged with teaching literature to high school aged kids. Every year she went through a veritable obstacle course to get any lit approved. The curriculum had sanitized, edited versions of the piece, which had the same effect as drinking flat root beer with stale crackers. If she elected to use a non-sanitized version, it had to be approved by administration. Classics like The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Red Badge of Courage got axed because of the “adult themes” they portrayed. Any appeals to how Fitzgerald showed the consequences of godless living, or that Lee taught the importance of empathy by portraying the lack of it in racism fell on deaf ears. I understand the desire to protect our children, and I also understand that literature needs to be age-appropriate (and some so-called literature isn’t worth teaching). But our children also need to be equipped to handle real problems that occur in a fallen world as well as be exposed to thinking that is different than theirs, if for no other reason than that they may overcome it. Literature can provide this, especially when read through the lens of a Christian worldview (Parents, I don’t care where your kids go to school, read what they are reading. It informs you as well as gives you something in common to talk about).
Public Schools Provide Different Opportunities
Notice, I did not say better opportunities, I said different. Sports, science, field trips, classroom technology, dual-enrollment programs, etc. are all things my kids have access to in their public school. My eldest will graduate high school this year with an associates degree in nursing that the school system paid for. Do other educational models provide these things in varying degrees? Yes, but public schools have it neatly packaged and easily accessible (for the most part) without having to jump through hoops, sign up for sports leagues, settle for used technology that was purchased when the public school upgraded, or pay as much out of pocket. My kids are presented with a variety of electives, many of which I would never think to teach or know how to teach. That’s not to say other parents can’t, but that I know my limitations, and the limitations of living in a very rural setting where homeschool co-ops are few and very far between. The same can be said of sports. While there are many private schools with good sports programs, not all of them offer every sport at the varsity level. Nor are they always as competitive.
Public Schools Have a Higher Standard of Training for their Teachers
In order to teach at a public school you must have training in the field of education. That’s not true for home schools or private schools (though some private schools may require it). This means that for a teacher to teach my child she has to have passed courses in classroom management, learning systems and styles, educational theory, etc. in addition to classes in the field they are teaching. They have also had to undergo student teaching and hours of observation. This means that the majority of teachers that are in the public system are good at what they do. Like any cross-section of society you will have a few bad apples, but let me assure you, that’s also true in private schools. And you homeschooling parents out there are amazing. To do what you do day in and day out takes a lot of effort, discipline, and self-education. But I know I couldn’t do it and remain sane. And I also know I’m not as qualified to teach my kid calculus as her math teacher is.
A Final Plea
I know education can be a touchy topic. I also know that every parent has to do what he thinks is best for his child. Educating your children is hugely important. Don’t pick this apart and come up with a rebuttal for each point. I know there are good private schools out there and there are good home schools out there. I also know if I didn’t live where I live or if the curriculum was different, my kids could be educated very differently than they currently are. So please, don’t judge me, or others , who choose to educate differently than you do. And remember, education starts and ends where you live, no matter how you school your children.
*Now I know, the naysayers are already pulling up every illustration of a public school suppressing Christian thought and expression. If you are in the anti-public school camp you are champing at the bit to point out how my kids are being indoctrinated to become agents of the state. Let me say a few things in defense: first, my school district is different than other school districts. I live in a conservative area of a historically conservative state. If I lived elsewhere, and the school ideology was different, then perhaps my child’s education would be different. But no less than a dozen members of the small little church I minister to work in one of the local public schools. If there’s some vast government conspiracy to brainwash the youth of southern Virginia, they are largely unaware. Second, more often than not a suppression of religious freedom in the classroom is either a misinterpretation of a rule already in place (e.g. a kid can’t wear a shirt with a Christian slogan in the classroom, but the school has banned shirts with ANY slogans on them. This is not religious suppression. It is enforcing a rule.) Or a single employee overstepping his bounds. Rarely is it a case of an entire school system banding together against Christianity.