The Cardus Daily

God’s Preferential Option for Public Schools? Some Questions

James K.A. Smith  |  October 14, 2013  |  Education, Parenting

The “justice generation” has a new target, and a new badge of honour. The target of their criticism is Christian schools, or more specifically, parents who send their children to Christian schools. And their new badge of honour is their own decision to send their children to public schools—preferably the poorest public schools in the core city.

I’m not even talking about Allison Benedikt’s over-the-top manifesto (“If You Send Your Kid to a Private School You Are a Bad Person“). For more on that, I refer you to Hubert Krygsman’s earlier post here on the Cardus Daily.

I’m thinking of Jennifer Slate’s more measured essay for Christianity Today‘s “This Is Our City” project (“Why We Send Our Kids to the Poorest Public School“). Slate recounts her family’s decision to forego the local Christian school because it was too expensive—not too mention being an “all-white, all-Christian, all-moneyed, educated world.” Instead, they ended up at their neighbourhood public school. But what was a sort of default decision becomes an intentional commitment. And since this is an essay, I take it that we are supposed to consider making the same commitment, asking questions like they did:

What if I didn’t only think about the fabulous life I could make for my three? What if I stood up for not only what was good for mine, but was good for all?

Too many of these conversations seem to be predicated on myths about Christian schooling and are largely uninterested in questions of curriculum. For example, those who champion Christian involvement in the public schools seem to focus on Christian schools as “private” enclaves of retreat and withdrawal, “holy huddles” whereby Christian children are sheltered from the world.

That would be news to our family. Our four children have attended the local Christian high school and have been invited to consider both the natural world and contemporary culture in all of its complexity and brokenness. Indeed, they sometimes come home having learned things that stretch us as parents. And as a school in the Reformed tradition, it surely carries no illusions about safety or purity or any kind of protective “bubble.” We’re Calvinists; we know that no school is a “total-depravity-free” zone.

You’ll also note the backhanded criticism in Slate’s piece: people who send their children to Christian schools just care about “their own.” But as the Cardus Education Survey reports, Christian schools actually produce graduates who are more invested in the common good. That’s why, based on the evidence, we keep pointing out that a Christian education is a “public” education and serves the common good—more, in fact, than so-called “public” (i.e., state-run) schools do. If we want to change the social architecture for future generations, we need to seriously consider educating them in Christian schools.

Finally, and most significantly, what I find most striking in Jennifer Slate’s essay is how little she actually discusses education. Instead, the school is largely treated as a site of association, a community center for building relationships. Of course that is true, but schools are also for, well, learning. And at the heart of the best Christian schools is an integral vision of education that refuses to buy the myth of a “neutral” education in the supposedly “secular” spaces of our so-called “public” schools. The case for Christian schooling is not sociological, it’s epistemological. The vision of Christian education is rooted in a conviction that learning is always informed by some worldview or faith commitments, which is why we should be intentional about teaching and learning from an explicitly Christian starting point.

Could Christians schools be doing all of these things better? Without question.

Do Christian schools in North America reflect the diversity of every tribe and tongue and nation? Not yet. But then again, neither do our churches. And Slate shouldn’t generalize from her experience in the south to the rest of the country. Moreover, we should note that families committed to Christian schools are also free to reinhabit our core cities, living in the diversity that Slate celebrates. The public schooling of our children is not the only—and not even the best—way to seek the welfare of the city.

Do we need to think long and hard about the economics that shapes access to Christian education? Certainly. But there are communities that actively seek to make Christian education accessible to all families who want it, and have been doing so for a hundred years.

None of the options are perfect this side of the eschaton. But I’m certainly not convinced that God has any preferential option for public schooling in the meantime. Indeed, I hope that my children will choose Christian schools for their children, precisely because I want them to be disciples of Jesus who will be equipped to seek the common good.



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