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To Public School Or Not Public School? That Is The Question

To public school or not public school? That is the question. This is a question that requires a high degree of nuance, for many factors go into the decision of schooling for each family. My stance when it comes to the choices other families have made is one of charity, for I don’t live their circumstances. I recognize that not all families can or even should make the same choices we’ve made. Not all families have the opportunities we’ve had.

At the same time, for those that do make the choice to public school, I do want to suggest you reckon with the reality of what, exactly, the public ed system is. Go into it with eyes wide open: your kids are being formed 40 hours per week by a secular system that is definitely not neutral. I can’t say it loudly enough: “secular” is not synonymous with “neutral.” It has a particular ideology that most of the time runs counter to the beliefs and values of your family, and it is forming your kids according to that ideology. We easily see this when it comes to overtly Islamic, Mormon, Orthodox Jewish, and Christian schools, but somehow that common sense notion flies out the window when it comes to secular public ed, but public ed is just as religious as those other worldviews. You don’t need a God in a worldview for it to be religious. Suffice it to say: public school is no longer devoted to “just the basics” of reading, writing, and arithmetic. So much more happens there moment by moment, and an incredible amount is taught by what is *not* actively taught and talked about, maybe even more than by what *is* actively taught and talked about. Kids in public schools are immersed in a particular, parochial culture. If you are going to send your kids to public school, for whatever reason, you’ll need to be on top of your game when it comes to discipleship and formation. Many times you will be working to undo what is done in school rather than work along with it. You will need to start early, at the toddler stage, be very intentional, take a lot of time to form them yourselves, and keep it up for the long haul.

We did public ed for our older daughter for a period of time when we lived in CA, because it was the best choice available for us at that point in time, and I know lots of teachers who are good hearted and do yeoman’s work. It was a good school and we were and are thankful for the work they did. Better than most schools we’ve seen. Actually having a good relationship with the principal and staff before we sent our daughter made us more comfortable with the choice. We will probably make the public school choice again at some point in the future. At each step along the way, though, no matter what educational choice we’ve made each year, the default has been that we, our daughters’ parents, are the primary educators in their lives, not the state (ie, public school). Far too often, families make the opposite assumption: they assume that it is the experts’ job (read: the government) to educate, and the parents are to send their kids off to them and leave it up to the state to do the educating, so they don’t consider other options unless the local school is absolutely terrible. That is the default for most American families, implicitly or explicitly. Public school is the only or primary game in town, and other options are to be used in case of emergency. I suggest these families have it precisely backwards. If you need to send your kids to a school--if you can’t homeschool or do private school--maybe because of finances, job situation, or a plethora of other reasons, you still start with the default that you are their educators, not the “experts,” and you outsource to other institutions public and private as the need arises. It is public school that’s the alternative to the default to be relied upon if necessary, not the other way around. This means that no matter the educational choice, you will need to stay active in their discipleship and education more than you might want to or expect. This does not mean simply volunteering at school through PTA and sports booster clubs, though it might include that. See my previous posts on suggestions.

Some Christian families choose public school out of an evangelistic desire. “We are sending them to the mission field at school, teaching them to reach out to and love others, to be salt and light in the culture” they reason. I get the sentiment, and acknowledge that it comes from the right place, but I do not think this is a good reason to public school. Let me explain. First, public schools are mission fields *of a sort,* but they are not primarily mission fields. They are also, more fundamentally, catechizing institutions. They actively seek to form and mold those under their roofs. If you were a missionary, in, say, a heavily Hindu country, would you send your kids to a local school that immersed them in the Hindu religion 8 hours a day, in the name of evangelistic zeal? Probably not. Same reasoning goes here. You’d recognize that you’d be leaving them vulnerable and it would be unfair to expect them to shine as missionaries in such an environment. Same reasoning goes here. Second, kids are incredibly malleable at young ages, and not ready to be missionaries on their own in an environment that is seeking to catechize them in the ways public school seeks to do that. There is an element of preparation when it comes to being a missionary. Churches don’t just throw their missionaries out into the field. They train and prepare them first. In addition, these missionaries spend years in the church growing in their walk with the Lord. That doesn’t mean you don’t train them in missionary habits. Do! Do mission yourself and take them with you. They can share the gospel. They can love others. It’s just a bit much to give them that charge by sending them to be formed by an institution that, 8 hours per day, does everything it can to knock that habit out of them and make it disgusting to them. If a church sent a young Christian to a heavy Muslim country, and the training this church gave this new Christian was to send them to a fundamentalist Islam school, that’s probably not the best way for this young Christian to be prepared. Maybe this might be a good choice in some circumstances for some older, mature Christians, but not a young one. Why do we not see this when it comes to the public school system? The point isn’t that the public school system is exactly like a fundamentalist Islam school. The point is that both actively seek to form young minds in ways that are antithetical to a renewed Christ Kingdom mind. We immediately see that in one instance, but are blind to it in the other.

Next, the stereotype is that the public school is the only game in town when it comes to kids being “salt and light,” or at least it is the place with the most “salt and light” potential. This is a stereotype and a false dichotomy. If you are intentional, your kids can be salt and light in a homeschool environment. The world is the mission field, not just a public school. The difference is that outside the public school, your kids will be in the mission field alongside you, which is more appropriate to their development at young ages. The key word here is “intention.” What a lot of families do is simply throw their kids to the culture in public schools, and maybe help them walk through the challenges a little in after school hours. Many times they don’t even *know* of the challenges their kids face, because the kids don’t communicate them to the parents and the parents don’t prod. This is not helpful. The end goal no matter what is for kids to be salt and light. The real question is “how can families best prepare them to be effective in that endeavor?” That is, “how can families best equip kids?” This isn’t about sheltering kids and avoiding the world. Far from it. The end goal is the same: send believers out into the world to make disciples. The real question is how to best achieve that for the long haul. ”But they learn to interact with others who are different than them in a public school. Diversity” Again, this trades on a stereotype of homeschooling as inherently sheltering and isolating kids. Some do homeschool that way, but it need not be so. Homeschool is not inherently or primarily isolating. There is plenty of socialization going on. The classroom is the world. Homeschool properly done gives plenty of opportunity for kids to interact with diverse people, of different ages (this doesn’t happen as much in public schools--they are heavily sequestered with kids their own age all day), different backgrounds, classes. To the degree that the parents lives are like this will be the degree to which the kids get it as well. Like with everything, you the parent must make the effort. Intention. The point is that the public school is not the only game in town when it comes to teaching kids how to interact with a diverse populace, and it arguably isn’t even the best way to do that in particular instances. So: critically evaluate your schooling choices. In 2021 it is not business as usual. You are the primary educator, and you can’t take things for granted. Really wrestle with the particulars, and make the best choice in your circumstances. What about private, Christian schools? This is not a silver bullet to the challenges of our day. Some Christian schools are great, some not, and even the best are not panaceas. Heck, not even homeschool is a silver bullet. There is no silver bullet. I will tackle this question in my next post.

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