American parents have many choices about education. The easiest and cheapest is to send your kids to public school, as all the Gruntled kids do. It is part of the social compact that everyone, whether they have kids in school or not, will pay for public education for all. Harder and more expensive is to send your kids to private school, where roughly 10% of children go. The hardest alternative, if you do it right, is homeschooling. It is also the most expensive in opportunity costs, though the cash outlay may be the lowest. Homeschooling is a minority of the minority of kids not in public school, but it is clearly growing, especially among families who are religiously dissatisfied with the public schools.
In recent years, though, there has been the beginnings of a movement to get Christians to withdraw from public schools altogether. It is, to be sure, a very small movement now, but, like homeschooling itself, it is likely to grow. The movement is fueled by the widespread and official effort to make the public schools religiously neutral, and the annual crop of foolish “Johnny got detention for bringing his Bible to school” errors. There are plenty of reasons for families of all kinds, especially religious conservatives, to conclude that their local schools are not the right place for their own children. Members of my own extended family have made that choice.
It is a big leap from concluding that the public schools aren’t right for me, to the decision that the public schools aren’t right for any Christians, or indeed for any religious people.
In 2004 two Southern Baptist laymen, lawyer Bruce Shortt and retired General T.C. Pinckney, brought a resolution to the Southern Baptist Convention calling for all Southern Baptists to withdraw from the public schools. The convention’s Resolutions committee refused to report the proposal out, so Shortt and Pinckney made a similar proposal from the floor. It was defeated on a voice vote. Shortt, who is making a career of anti-public school activism, returned last year with a new partner to propose that the SBC investigate all public schools for a pro-homosexual agenda.
Every denomination has its hot-under-the-collar agitators of the left and the right. When a prominent seminary president weighs in on an issue, though, the stakes get higher. Al Mohler, of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, took the occasion of the 2005 Shortt proposal to proclaim, “I believe that now is the time for responsible Southern Baptists to develop an exit strategy from the public schools.”
I think it very unlikely that most Southern Baptists would leave the public schools, any more than they boycotted Disney when the SBC issued that call a few years ago. I do think, though, that there is unease among religious people that public schools are in danger of crossing a line from neutrality to hostility. The current “intelligent design” debate is making things worse, polarizing the science/religion distinction far more than the facts require.
Public schools are democratic institutions. The people who work in them are pretty ordinary members of their communities. Most schools accommodate the faith and practice of the people in them. The schools are governed by elected officials and paid for with taxes levied by elected officials. If the schools get too far out of line with community standards, the democratic remedy is available.