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Should Christians Abandon Public Schools?

Catherine McNiel


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A home-schooled boy building a structure with marshmallows and sticks.

Why I Homeschool

"Homeschooling frees our calendar to better serve, and to be involved in ways we never could if we were tied to a public-school schedule," argues Hillegeist. Join the debate: Public school or homeschool?

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  • Chuck Wainwright

    The children should come first.Let the Church and Community first prepare the soil through prayer.Then activity through the schools;and physical support-dollars!The change will occur.when light begins to dawn,then the children

Last September, after my sons boarded the bus for a new year at our local public school, I read two articles that might make any parent question the decision to entrust a child to the public-school system. The first, in a local newspaper, documented the growing levels of poverty in schools in the suburbs of Chicago. The district with the biggest increase in poverty is the one in which my children are enrolled. No less than 76 percent of district students now come from low-income homes; many arrive at school hungry, and test scores are falling.

In the second article, Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, asked Christian parents, “Is public education even an option anymore?” Writing for Answers magazine, he outlined various ideological problems, concluding that “for Christians who take the Christian worldview seriously and who understand the issues at stake, the answer is increasingly no.”

Clearly, public schools can be troubled places. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that the Christian consensus seems to side with Mohler; a quick online search yields an immediate harvest of articles imploring Christians to remove their children from public education. And when I meet people in town who share my faith and education, they often confess they never seriously considered enrolling their children in the local schools. The prevailing wisdom is that private or homeschool options are the best choice, that the extra investment of time and money allows us to put our children first, rooting them into the kingdom of God.

But what about the children who are left behind, in increasingly darker places as each Christian light is removed? Should the Christian response be to abandon troubled public schools – or should our answer rather be to infiltrate them?

Our family moved to this Chicago suburb after perceiving God’s nudge to invest in his kingdom in this specific place. We want what every human wants – shelter, community, and security. But as followers of Christ we are called to something else as well: we are to be salt and light, representing his kingdom here and now.

Enrolling our children in the public school system is central to our life in this underresourced, diverse community. Before moving here we did our homework, poring over the district’s educational scorecards and demographic makeup. I’ll admit I was concerned and burdened by the challenges associated with the poverty and often-complicated immigration situations in our new neighborhood. I understand why so many families seek other options. But when I visit our sons’ elementary school and see the at-risk, English-as-a-second-language, firstgeneration American children working hard to make their way, I think of all the resources that are lost through educational white flight. My heart aches each time I meet a strong Christian family whose talents, resources, and faith will never intersect with the children in our public schools – including my own children. When I hear the well-intentioned advice, “If you move there, don’t send your kids to the public school,” my heart cries, “But that’s where we need you!”

All the same, must I sacrifice my child for this cause? I feel the question deeply, and I am not suggesting we send our children out as little missionaries. Rather, I am calling for entire families and churches to flood the schools together. With the Body of Christ permeating these places, we would no longer have to choose between our children and our community. As the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7). In this way, our children will learn to follow Christ, to bring him to the world, to live focused on others, and to understand other cultures. Supported by their parents and churches, they will learn these life skills in our public schools.

After all, the demographics of our neighborhoods are not as impoverished as those of the school system. When families pull their children out of public school, they deprive that school of their resources and energy, prompting more families to opt out. Meanwhile, families with fewer resources have no option but to stay. Soon, districts with challenges and resources become simply districts with challenges. We should reverse this demographic spiral. If we flood instead of flee, we could impact these schools for the common good and the glory of God.

Choosing public education – even in a troubled school district – is my Christian act of hope, justice, and redemption. I choose public school not because I don’t care, but as a commitment to care and invest even more. My husband and I see this as a kingdom-building opportunity, in our own small way adding what we have to the wellbeing of the city. And we are not alone – beyond the discouraging statistics and failing test scores we have found committed teachers, administrators, and parents working together to make a difference. God is always found working in even the darkest of places.

Choosing public education – even in a troubled school district – is my Christian act of hope, justice, and redemption.

Jesus left his privilege to become one of us and to serve us. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty, not scared off by temptation or danger. If we follow him we must count the cost and pick up our cross, forsaking privilege for the sake of service. He implores us to put our light on a lampstand and not under a basket. By withdrawing from public schools, Christians have dimmed the light in places that desperately need it, clustering instead under the protective cover of our homes and churches.

In his book Neighborhood Mapping, John Fuder implores churches to serve their neighborhoods by becoming genuine, credible members of the community. “We can choose to remove our children from the ‘bad’ schools to enroll them in better, safer schools. But. . . God calls us to set aside our privilege and truly reside among those who have nothing, following Christ’s model.” The church has not adequately wrestled with the community-wide implications of our private decisions on how to educate our children. Where our children and treasure are, there our hearts will be also. When our hearts, children, and finances are mingled with our neighbors’ to such a degree that we can only win if they win, we are following Christ’s teaching.

Because the Christian message is life-changing in its power, and because our country’s children are at stake, let’s acknowledge the problems and respond with infiltration rather than abandonment. Let’s seek not only to raise our own children to know Christ, but to follow him in seeking the redemption and peace of the city, to infuse his creation with salt and light and new life, and to place a light upon a hill.

For a counterpoint, read Paisley Hillegeist’s article, Why I Homeschool. Then join the debate by commenting below.

A girl hugging her mother in front of a school bus.
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Contributed By Catherine McNiel

Catherine McNiel serves alongside her husband in a community-based ministry in greater Chicago while caring for three kids, two jobs, and one enormous garden. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild.

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