On November 10, 2015, Jemar Tisby wrote an article for the Reformed African American Network titled, “There Are Children Here: Christians and Public Education.” (He also recently did an interview on the subject.) In his article, Mr. Tisby makes the case that Christians should be involved in America’s public schools (at least to some extent). While Mr. Tisby appears to understand why many Christians do not want to send their children to public schools, he laments the fact that Christians have “abandoned public schools entirely.” As he says:
The personal decision to not send your children to public school should not prevent you from advocating for the millions of children in the public school system.
Mr. Tisby then correctly points out the association of poverty and public school. This leads him to say that if we want to care for the poor then “we must care about public education.” He says there are vulnerable people there, and there is therefore a need for Christians in the public schools—“Serving in public schools can be a singularly effective way to demonstrate God’s grace and mercy.”
How Should Christians Serve Those in the Public Schools?
In what ways does Mr. Tisby think Christians should serve those in the public schools? He gives some examples: “volunteering to read to a 3rd grader, hiring a high school student as an intern at your company, or running for the local school board.”
Mr. Tisby is right that many of those in the public schools are vulnerable and we can serve them. However, Mr. Tisby’s suggestion is that we serve them by cooperating with the system. This is the basic thrust of his article, and it is implied in his suggestion of “running for the local school board.”
But I think there is a better way.
Instead of seeking to get involved in the public schools, we should seek to offer a way out. If Christians believe government schools are such a bad place, then why would they want to do anything that encourages the system? Serving on the board is tacit approval that government schools should exist in the first place.
Mr. Tisby mentioned two of the serious concerns with the public schools: (1) they cannot explicitly mention God; and (2) transgenderism. One could add a whole host of other problems, such as the negative behavioral influences of violence, drugs, and sexual immorality. There is also the godless worldview that permeates the curriculum and textbooks, as well as a general neglect of the history and thought of Western civilization. Not to mention, the entire system is based on coercion through compulsory taxation—meaning you have to pay for the schools even if you do not use them.
If public schools are this bad (and many Christians believe they are), why would those Christians want anything to do with the system? If parents would not subject their own children to such schools, why would they want to serve on the board?
If anything, this is a waste of time and effort that could be spent towards making a more meaningful impact. And this is the main point of my rebuttal—we should be offering those in the public schools a way out by setting up private Christian schools and homeschool groups.
Focusing Our Efforts On Christian Schools
I do feel for the students in the public schools. Many of them, especially those in the inner cities, are in a rough spot. They often attend schools that provide a poor educational and moral environment. Our desire should be for them to have an opportunity to get out of those schools. Instead of seeking to serve those in the public schools by getting involved in the public schools, we should serve those in the public schools by offering them an alternative option of education. This is a much more meaningful way of helping students currently in the public schools.
How can Christians offer an alternative option of education for those in the public schools? By setting up private Christian schools everywhere possible. Such schools can provide students a safer environment and a better education. But more importantly, such schools can provide students with a robust Christian education—teaching every subject from a biblical worldview. This is what children desperately need.
But private Christian schools take money, lots of money (especially to provide scholarships for poorer families). They also take time and effort, as well as vision and motivation. Mr. Tisby’s motivation is right. But it is aimed in the wrong direction.
The problem is not that Christians are not involved enough in American public schools. Rather, the problem is that Christians are far too involved in the system. While many Christians have abandoned public schools, the vast majority of Christians still send their children to them (which helps keep the system going). Loads of Christians also become public school teachers. Why do they not teach in private Christian schools instead, where their hands are not tied behind their back in the classroom? It is usually because of the money. Public schools pay better because they rely on taxes rather than tuition. (And of course, this rigs the market so that private schools have trouble competing.)
Mr. Tisby is advocating more of the same. He wants Christians to support those in the public schools, suggesting that we should reform the system from the inside. But this has not worked. Regardless of past and current reform efforts, the American public school system is in terrible shape. This is why the school choice movement is so popular. Parents are looking for alternatives. But instead of charter schools, which are still government run, we should seek to provide genuine private education. For only private schools will have the freedom to provide a Christian education.
A Better Way
Instead of continuing failed policies, I am arguing that we need change. We need something entirely different from the current system. Christians should not only take their kids out of the public schools, but they should in turn start their own schools. Pastors and Christian leaders should be advocating for such schools, and churches should start pouring their resources into them. Then Christians teaching in the public schools should follow them into the Christian schools, where they can teach their subject from a biblical worldview.
But this will never happen as long as Christians like Mr. Tisby encourage us to cooperate with the government school system. There are vast amounts of resources that go untapped and numerous opportunities passed over because Christians continue to focus their efforts on the public schools. If Mr. Tisby really wants to serve the poor, he will join me in advocating for Christians to turn their efforts towards Christian education. This is a far better way of serving those in need.