In 1977 I wrote an article for CHRISTIANITY TODAY in which I argued that Christians had no business founding Christian schools. I condemned Christian schools as separatist, possibly racist, and inimical to Christian evangelism.

One of the editors told me then that my article set a record for negative mail. Most letters came from private-school administrators, and from Lutheran and Baptist pastors who had schools in their churches. They loved these schools and despised me for not loving them also.

Of all the letters, one remains in my memory. An inner-city Philadelphia mother told me about her experiences. Her teenage daughter had been assaulted on the school playground. Gangs controlled the halls and restrooms, and the daughter left home each morning refusing to drink her milk at breakfast because she felt she had to avoid the restroom until she returned home. The mother, who worked as a waitress, said, “If I had the money, I would do anything to get my daughter out of that hell, to give her the chance to have a better life. The schools you defend are about to destroy my daughter, and they ought not to get away with it.”

Over the years, I have come to believe that I was wrong and that struggling mother was right.

Roots of my conversion

Please put my conversion in context. I come from a long line of public-school teachers. My mother taught for 40 years in the public schools. My wife taught for six years, and after that, she and I worked and volunteered in our children’s schools. But in the last couple of years, I have come to disbelieve the great liberal axiom that democracy is utterly dependent upon uniform public education. I no longer think it is our duty as caring Christians to support the public schools unquestioningly.

We sometimes forget that churches invented public schools a little over a hundred years ago. The first church schools were designed to be public schools, to offer to the educationally disadvantaged the advantages that previously only money could buy. The idea caught on, and government eventually got into the education business.

But today’s public schools have failed us. Governed from the top down, bloated with bureaucracy (only one of every two public-school employees actually teaches students), public schools have devised a system that is outmoded and inept. They have failed my children—children of a white, middle-class home. They have failed disadvantaged children even more.

In 1991, Polly Williams led a group of black parents who were fed up with what the Milwaukee schools had done to their children. They pushed through the first state-funded voucher system so that low-income parents would have the option to send their children to a wider array of schools. “Now we’re taking some power from the bureaucracy and giving it to the parents,” said Williams.

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Assailed by the NAACP and the Wisconsin Education Association, Williams, a long-time Democrat, community activist, and mother of two, asserts that liberals are frightened by the prospect of having poor people make the same choices that affluent parents enjoy. After 22 years of trying to improve Milwaukee’s schools, she is fed up with a system that rewards failure (in both teachers and students) and punishes success, creativity, and initiative.

James Coleman of the University of Chicago, in his study comparing public and private high-school education in the U.S., has shown that Catholic schools spend far less than big-city public high schools, yet they are more successful. More than two-thirds of black private-school students are in Catholic schools. Coleman found that from grades 10 through 12, the gap between black and white student achievement narrowed in Catholic schools but widened in public ones. Thus, Chicago sociologist/priest Andrew Greeley notes that the only sure-fire, almost completely successful educational methodology for educating poor, inner-city youth is to send them to a Catholic school.

Where should we Christians stand in this debate? Some argue that many Christians advocating Christian schools and home schooling act as if the public school is beyond redemption. I don’t believe that any institution (with perhaps an exception or two) is beyond redemption. But the question is, redeemed how? Few critics of Christian schools offer any suggestions.

I have one: competition. Let the public schools, now enjoying a higher rate of funding, higher teachers’ salaries, and better equipment than ever before, be challenged to do better by stiff, visible competition.

The nerve of some critics

Listen to the defense of public schools by members of teachers’ unions, local educational associations, or professors of education in universities, and one hears few new ideas and no radical proposals. Instead, they tend to blame parents. This seems odd since these are often the very same people who have been telling us for decades that they are “professionals.” (A major—though usually unstated—function of public education, as articulated by founders such as Horace Mann, has been to detach students from their parents in order to make them more dependent upon the state for their primary means of making sense out of the world.) So, after having our children for about eight hours every day and after receiving our tax money, now they say that it is up to us parents to teach our children after we get home from work or they cannot be taught.

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The truth is out. Education is not a matter for “professionals.” Education is a mystery, a complex interaction between human beings who care about one another. The positive effects seen in some home-schooled children suggest that parents may very well know more about education than the educators.

I recall the recent Duke graduate, a devoted Christian and a whiz in math, who felt God had called him to teach in the public schools. Sadly, in a couple of years, he dropped out of teaching and works now as an actuary for an insurance company. He left public education, he said, not because of difficulties with the students but because of the cynicism, mediocrity, and callousness of his fellow teachers and the school administrators. “The conversation in the teachers’ lounge is deadly for young teachers,” he said.

All is not lost. On Livonia Avenue, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn—surely one of the most depressed, poverty bound areas of New York—Grace Christian Educational Center provides a group of black children gospel music, African-American history, and instruction in reading and math, producing students who all score well above state-measured grade levels. Christian parents pay about $200 a month for this creative mix of educational innovation in a church basement, combined with explicit Christian commitment and a great deal of love.

I was wrong, when I wrote my article in the 1970s, to think of Christian schools as mainly the result of white flight from public education. That was an oversimplification. A recent poll by Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup found that 46 percent of Americans favor a system of vouchers they can cash in at private or public schools. Furthermore, 54 percent of the nonwhites supported vouchers and only 33 percent did not. The minority population in private schools has been growing steadily in recent years. Ethnic and racial minorities, outside the usual avenues to power in this society, know their children’s future is more dependent on education than it is for more affluent children.

Grace Christian is one of the hundreds of inner-city schools, operated by mostly nonwhite Baptist, Pentecostal, and other congregations. They are unashamedly Christian and fiercely determined not to lose their children to an inhuman, degrading system.

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The Monroe Saunders School in Baltimore, supported in part by the First United Church of Jesus Christ-Apostolic, charges under $3,000 a year for tuition, gets no government aid, and is operated by black Christians. There, 80 students excel in an undeniably religious setting. While only about a third of the students are members of the First United Church, Bible study and ethics, along with much attention to African-American Christian leaders, make up the curriculum.

Joan Davis Ratteray of the Institute for Independent Education in Washington, D.C., calls these minority private schools the “Underground Railroad in minority education that allows the ‘slaves’ of failed public education to escape to freedom.” Her major study of black private schools shows that their average size was about 50 students in the elementary and middle schools and about 100 in the secondary schools. Average tuition was about $2,000, and less than 20 percent received any government or foundation money. Most are related to a church.

Thinking like visionaries

These schools are leading the way for a Christian rediscovery of a mission in education. If churches thought of the ideas that led to public education, we can think again creatively, providing visionary, revolutionary alternatives to the presumptuous and ineffective monopoly of public education. There need be nothing “private” about these schools and their witness. With only about 10 percent of the nation’s students, private schools must delight in being yeast and salt. Churches have much experience in exerting influence out of proportion to their numbers. And private Christian schools have a potentially very public witness by enacting new ideas that could become the salvation of a tottering public-education system.

My conversion is buttressed by a new book, a collection of essays, Schooling Christians (Eerdmans), edited by Stanley Hauerwas and John Westerhoff, colleagues of mine at Duke. Noting that public schools are not and never have been as “neutral” as they have claimed to be, Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff notes in one essay how the curriculum, organization, and even the architecture of public schools reflect an ethic that may not be at all Christian.

In the nineteenth century, he argues, Horace Mann articulated the notion that public schools were needed to instill “common values” into children who came from different ethnic and family backgrounds. But whose “common values”? Such an enterprise is bound to run roughshod over those who are not powerful or rich enough to push their values on everyone else. No wonder there is a potential alliance between the demands of ethnic minorities for choice, competition, and change in public education and the demands of many Christians. We share the experience of suppression of our distinctive histories and testimonies in favor of someone else’s allegedly “common values.”

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Increasing numbers of Christians suspect that the public schools’ pride in liberating students from parental values, tradition, community, and religion has only rendered young people more subservient to the dominant values of the state. Wolterstorff envisions new schools as “distinct subcommunities in which the conditions are still present for cultivation of ethical sensitivity and developing moral character.”

We Christians do have a witness to make to public education. Some of us may continue to witness within public education, though I suspect that will grow increasingly difficult. More of us must urge our churches once again to boldness in thinking new thoughts and dreaming new dreams, inventing clear alternatives to the present order. As Christians, we must evidence as much concern about the victims of poor public education as we do about the plight of our own children. We must create educational strategies that embody our commission to minister “to the least of these,” rather than to abandon them to the failed policies of the state.

Grace Christian meeting in a basement in Brooklyn, Monroe Saunders in Baltimore, Christ School up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Immaculate Conception right here in Durham, North Carolina: God bless you and keep you. Wisdom is known by her children. I believe God may use you as a light, a blessing to the public schools of this country.

Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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