Being the Light in Our Failing Public Schools

In the most recent issue of Plough Quarterly, Catherine McNiel wrote a thoughtful piece about her and her husband’s decision to place their three children in the Chicago public school system, instead of a private Christian school or homeschooling. She focuses on the trepidation she felt at this decision, and the Christian imperative they felt to place their children where they did. The piece struck a chord with Arianna and I. As parents of Julian, age 2, and Evelyn, 6 months, this is a subject on our minds as we begin to near that decision ourselves.

Catherine begins by considering the view prominent among many Christian parents, that public schools are unsafe places for families who try to raise their kids with a Christ-centric worldview. She cites a local Chicago newspaper that reported that 76%  of students in Chicago-area public schools are from low-income homes, and then touches on the increasing trend for parents to not consider public schools as a viable option. She then asks the money question:

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?

Catherine and her husband elected to send their children to the local public school. She says,

I understand why so many families seek other options. But when we visit our sons’ elementary schools, and see the at-risk, English-as-a-second-language, first-generation 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 school – 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!”

We recently moved to Tulsa, OK. It’s Arianna’s hometown, and we love it here. I plan on starting seminary in the fall at Phillips Theological Seminary here, so we will be here for the next three-four years at the very least. Julian will start school in that time, and Evelyn will be very close. This is a subject fresh in our mind as parents.

Tulsa schools, while not terrible, are still part of the public school system of Oklahoma, ranked 49th in the nation. Public education is under constant attack from our state legislature, and private Christian schools are found in abundance. This includes high quality institutions like Cascia Hall and Heritage Hall. The continuing cuts to education funding in Oklahoma has weakened already over-burdened schools and educators. Classroom sizes are rising, resources are shrinking, and standardized testing is destroying the little remaining faith many Oklahoma parents have in public schools.

So, the question is: why would we want to subject our kids to this? I am a strong proponent of the concept of public education. I believe quality education to be a right of all children, and I think the state has a duty to provide that to all children. I am also a strong believer in the absolute separation of church and state, and so I want secular schools, where there is no teacher-led prayers or Bible study and well taught, empirically-based physical and social sciences. I believe we have a duty to support public education and fund it adequately. I believe the increasing diversity of our schools is not something to be feared, but prized in the experiences it will bring our children.

But, I also understand schools are more dangerous than ever, that public education is in bad shape, that the education our kids receive in public schools is increasingly substandard and headed in the wrong direction. Julian and Evelyn don’t deserve to play the role of guinea pigs, or to be the tools with which we prove a point. So again, why would we put our kids in public schools?

The other thing we wish to avoid is the idea of the “White savior.” I don’t want us to be misunderstood as saying we can save all the poor (read:minority) students by infusing more white kids back into public schools. Diversity and difference will help our children grow, but not specifically because our kids are there; our kids will benefit just as much from the diversity they encounter and the other kids will benefit from our kids.

The point is, in all honesty, me and my wife come from privilege, and we have resources we can sink into a public school that will help every kid enrolled there, along with what everyone else brings to the table. When parents such as us decide to send our kids to a private faith-based school or homeschool, we are in a small way taking substantial resources away from kids who don’t have the benefit of that option.

I come down on the side that Catherine articulates: because it is where we are needed. Jesus calls us to be like salt, like yeast, like light: to permeate everything, everywhere, in order to bring the Kingdom on Earth here and now. She writes:

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.

This is what we must do. We can’t let those without the resources to place their children in private or charter schools suffer from a lack of resources and diversity. By working together, we can make all schools places of exceptional teaching, learning and growing. That is why we are choosing a secular public school. We want to be a light, to help make schools a great place again, in any small way we can. In Catherine’s words, “let’s acknowledge the problem and respond with infiltration rather than abandonment.”

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