restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


What’s Wrong With Public Education?

Greg Williamson

Some Background

“The Hebrew-Christian tradition is committed to moral education to enable people to love and serve both God and neighbour. The Wisdom literature illustrates moral education (Pr. 3:1ff.). According to Jewish tradition, local schools were first organized systematically in Palestine by Simeon ben Shetah in the 1st century BC. In the NT, teaching and learning are of great importance: Jesus teaches his disciples (Mt. 5:2); and in the early church, teaching was regarded as a gift (Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 4:11-14). Learning is an important part of Christian pilgrimage, and learning is perhaps best understood in the light of the model Jesus gives of apprentices learning from the master in an active and personal way.

“Public education in the West grew from this Christian tradition of teaching within the home and the church. In Europe and the USA the earliest schools were founded by Christians. Historically the Judaeo-Christian ethic underpinned most Western education. The 20th century has seen a dramatic shift towards a more secular approach, presenting problems both for parents desiring a ‘Christian’ education for their children and for Christian educators.

“Education takes place in many different contexts, and the crucial home influence on learning is widely acknowledged. The Judaeo-Christian model emphasizes the importance of a partnership between home and school, but in reality parents often abdicate responsibility to schools and there is an unhealthy denigration of the role of parents on the part of some teachers.” (S. E. Alsford, “Education,” in the New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995], 334-35).

Public Vs. Private Education

Recently I got into a conversation with a Christian friend of mine who used to be a public school teacher. Although she does not teach now, she does volunteer much time and effort to the public schools her two children attend. She had absolutely nothing good to say regarding homeschooling and very little good to say regarding private schooling. In her estimation, Christians have a solemn duty to enroll their children in public schools as early as possible. Why? So that their children can have a positive influence on the non-Christian children in the public schools.

While I did not (and will not) say that all public schools are of the devil, I did point out to my friend that in the vast majority of cases the reverse is actually the case: rather than the Christian child having a good influence on the non-believers, the non-believers have a bad influence on the Christian child. Her response? Children have to learn to stand up for themselves. True, certainly. But when a child is literally surrounded by other students, teachers, and administrators many if not most of whom are actively promoting a lifestyle that is antithetical to biblical Christianity, how is a child to stand up against that type of pressure?

The Purpose

In discussing both the advantages and disadvantages of the public education system, I think it’s vital to begin with a fundamental question: What is the purpose of public education? If you believe, as I do, that it is to provide children with a foundational understanding of basic subjects – i.e., reading, writing, and arithmetic (“the 3 R’s”) –  then you will have to admit that the public education system is receiving failing grades when it comes to meeting or exceeding its primary purpose for existence. This fact alone has led some parents to either enroll their children in private schools or else choose to homeschool them. It is also a major reason that, interestingly enough, public school teachers are nearly twice as “likely to send their own children to a private school than are the average parents”:

“The results of a new study from an education-reform group uncovered a revealing and sobering fact: public school teachers are much more likely to send their own children to a private school than are the average parents. In fact, almost twice as likely, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. In Rochester, New York, for example, while nearly 15 percent of all families have a child in private school, almost 38 percent of public school teachers do. The reason, according to an editorial in USA Today, is that public school teachers believe that religious and private schools provide stricter discipline and achieve higher academic standards than public schools. ‘For good investment tips, you might ask a financial planner where he puts his own money. If he bails out of a fund, you might want to do the same,’ the editorial said. ‘Likewise, how better to learn about the quality of a public school system than by asking the teachers where they send their own children?’ [AFAJournal]” (Agape Press News Briefs, 12-7-2004). Which, I suppose, is somewhat like a soldier in the Army advising people to join the Navy!

Discipline problems and low academic standards are only part of the problem, however. In far too many cases the public education system is being used as a platform for socialization. While some socialization –  i.e., “to fit or train for a social environment” (Webster) –  is healthy and very much needed, there is ample cause to be alarmed when literally millions of our children are being forcefully, deliberately, methodically socialized away from a Judeo-Christian value system and toward a secular, humanistic one. The end result is children of all ages who can barely write a coherent sentence and yet can explain in great detail the (alleged) benefits of gay rights, saving the whales, and using condoms. While such is certainly not the case in all public school systems, it is the case in enough of them for Christian parents to be very concerned.

Salt and Light

But what about Christians being salt and light in a world in dire need of both? Certainly a negative consequence of private education is less participation in the public education process on the part of Christian parents. (To be fair, however, even Christians who have their children enrolled in public schools participate far too infrequently. And by no means do only Christian parents send their children to private schools.) At least one possible solution, particularly in our bureaucracy-laden public education system, is for Christians to vote in representatives who share their values and who will push for reform if not a complete overhaul of the system. In a twist of irony, it would seem that these days there is a better chance of those types of representatives coming from the ranks of private schools and home schools.

But what about my friend’s point that Christian children need to be given the opportunity to influence their non-Christian peers? The answer here is something that we Christians need to be doing anyway (regardless of where our children attend school): community involvement. E.g., field trips to public places and events, children playing and interacting with the non-Christian children in their neighborhoods, and Christian parents looking for ways to minister to their non-Christian neighbors.

It Starts At Home

The author of the below article, Dr. Matt Friedeman, makes a basic point seldom (if ever) covered by the mainstream media and seemingly often overlooked by parents themselves: a child’s education is centered on his or her home. What a child is taught in school –  be it public or private school–  must be either reinforced or refuted by that child’s parents. Painfully obvious implication: parents must interact with their children to find out what they are learning in school, challenge it if it is steering them in the wrong direction, and steer their children in the right direction –  i.e., toward a biblical understanding of right and wrong. Rather than seeing school as some type of glorified baby-sitter, parents must take the time and make the effort to find out what their children are learning. If they don’t, their children will suffer immeasurably.

For children who come from troubled homes, single-parent families, etc., parental participation in the education process can be problematic, to say the least. But that is more reason, not less, for the parent or parents to make the necessary effort to be involved. Irrespective of the exact situation at home, at no time and in no way should the public education system –  or any other government entity, for that matter –  be looked upon as a type of surrogate parent tasked with helping to raise our children. I fear, however, that in far too many cases that is precisely what it has become.

The Real Problem

In a very real sense, the mess our public education system is in is not the problem but, rather, a symptom of the problem. The real problem is that we as a nation have turned away from God and have abandoned the standards of right and wrong espoused in His inspired, authoritative Word, the Bible. Some otherwise sensible parents say they want their children’s educational environment to be simultaneously free of any type of religion and a good moral influence. The truth remains, however, that there can be no morality without religion. The only question is whose religion will our children be exposed to. In far too many public schools today, the religion known as secular humanism is fast displacing personal faith in the Almighty God whose wisdom and guidance the founders of this country sought with all due diligence. Unlike so many in today’s America, they knew that without God we are doomed.

A Personal, Prayerful Process

The educational option that you choose for your child deserves and demands much prayerful thought. Whether you choose public school, private school, or home school (or some combination of the three), I urge you to be involved in the education process. Challenge your child to learn and grow into a person who loves and serves God and other people. Know what your child is being taught, and either reinforce it or refute it –  by helping your child to know and apply the wonderful, life-giving truths of God’s inspired, authoritative Word, the Bible.

December 18, 2004

Greg Williamson has been married for 11 years and is the father of two small boys. He has a B.A. in Biblical Studies and maintains a website designed to promote and foster Christian discipleship, “A Century 21 Disciple of Jesus” (

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