Navigating public school as a Christian parent

Public Schools | Advice for parents who don’t want public education to erode their students’ faith and values
by Mary Reichard
Posted 7/20/15, 02:40 pm

With school starting up next month in many places, some students are headed into learning environments that are hostile to religious ideas and expression. Christian parents should rethink how they engage their children’s public schools, says Eric Buehrer, a former public school teacher and the president of Gateways to Better Education. His organization helps families navigate public schools while keeping their faith and values intact. I talked with Buehrer about practical ideas for Christian families in public schools.

What’s the main thing you want Christian parents to know when sending their children to government-run schools? I think that they have to be ever cautious of the environment that their kids are going into. This doesn’t mean that every school is bad and every teacher is out to warp your children’s faith. What it means is that parents can’t assume that their values are going to be automatically supported in the classroom. And so I recommend what I call “predict and pre-teach.” Predict what your child may hear in class, and then pre-teach them before they ever hear about it. Teach them what God’s Word says about it or what your conservative values are about the issue.

Can you give an example of how to do that? [Say] your child is going to read a particular book, and you’re OK with them reading the book, but maybe it expresses more of a liberal bias. Use it as an opportunity to teach discernment to your children and have a conversation with them and talk about the bias in that textbook or the bias in that film they’re watching. … Now they’re watching with a critical eye rather than just absorbing.

What would you say is the dominant philosophy in public schools today? I’m concerned that many students are taught a poor definition of “tolerance.” Because we live in a diverse culture, there’s a lot of tolerance that has to go on. You have to tolerate people’s views that you don’t like, or their lifestyles, or the way they dress, … whether they have tattoos or don’t have tattoos. There’s a lot of tolerance that has to go on in our culture. But, unfortunately, kids are being taught a poor definition of tolerance, which is, “just accept everything.” The more things you accept, the more tolerant you are.

Acceptance as tolerance. Some might say, “What’s wrong with that?” A lot of kids think they’re being tolerant, when really they’re just being apathetic. … A more biblical definition is to say, what are our standards? There is a right and a wrong. What are those things? And then our tolerance is our allowable variation from that standard. This is more like a quality-control definition of tolerance. When a manufacturer is making a part, he has a standard for that part. There can be a little bit this way or a little bit that way that it can be off, but beyond that it is intolerable. It doesn’t meet quality standards. 

Of course, bringing up that you don’t accept something is difficult sometimes. This actually comes up in the way I recommend parents talk to their kids’ teachers when they have a concern. We had a case come up in New Mexico where the teacher was having the kids say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and then a pledge of allegiance to “Mother Earth.” And of course the parent was rightly concerned. … And so, rather than assume the worst, she called us and said, what should we do? I said, the first thing you do is you go in and use the phrase, “help me understand.” … Her assumption was that this was some New Ager that was trying to teach love of Gaia, the Earth spirit, and so forth. No! The teacher was just trying to teach the kids about recycling and not littering. And she saw this somewhere in some fair and she thought, oh, that would be a way to teach them to be more respectful of their environment.

So you start by going for clarity. What’s next? The first thing we recommend you do is support and agree with the teacher on something. And so she was able to say, I really appreciate that you want the kids to be conscious of their environment, not litter, recycle. That’s great. And then you transition to your concern here by saying, “but have you considered?” And here, the mom was able to say, “But have you considered that you’re actually teaching a theological view, a spiritual view? There are people who believe the Earth actually does have a spirit?” And the teacher was horrified. She said, oh, I didn’t mean to do that at all! I’m going to stop this immediately. So the teacher ended up thanking the parent.

So here was an example where the parent had a standard, and … pledging allegiance to “Mother Earth” was beyond that standard. The way she approached it was with kindness and character and actually helping the teacher see a better way rather than assuming the worst from the teacher and simply attacking her.

If you could point to one thing Christian parents could do to improve their kids’ experience in public schools, what would it be? If I opened a bank account for you and put a million dollars in it, but I never told you that it existed, it would do you no good. And that’s where we are in a lot of our situations with public schools. Students have all kinds of freedom to express themselves. Teachers have academic freedom to teach about the Bible and Christianity. But if they don’t know they have those freedoms, then they don’t know they can even act on them. I find a lot of parents and a lot of students and even teachers act under the assumption that they have no freedom to express their faith at school. And so, all the freedom in the world doesn’t really matter because they don’t even know that they have it. The first step is knowing you have it and then taking that step of acting on what you know.

OK, let’s do “true or false.” I’ll make a statement, and you say if it’s true or not and why. “Students must not express religious beliefs in school.” False. It’s been very clear for the last 20 years that students can express their faith in all kinds of ways, [including] classroom assignments, speeches they give, conversations with classmates, and so forth.

“Students can form religious clubs at school.” Absolutely. That’s been around since 1984. The Equal Access Act by Congress allows students to form religious clubs. They can have any kind of speech they want in those clubs. They can evangelize, and they can sponsor activities on campus that evangelize their fellow students.

“Students are not supposed to pray at school.” No, they can pray. They can pray on their own lunchtime, they can pray with classmates, they can pray in class. But they can also pray when there’s not something they are supposed to be engaged with in the class. Say there’s 10 minutes left to class and the teacher says, “Hey, we’ve got some free time, pull out a book or read or talk quietly with your neighbor, and two students want to start praying. [They are] absolutely free to do so.

“Students should not invoke the deity in commencement speeches and so forth.” Students are not agents of the state. They are free citizens. Now, if the school is concerned about how it might be perceived, then the U.S. Department of Education has said, put in a little caveat in the program that says student speech is their own speech, and it doesn’t represent, necessarily, the school. And so long as a student is chosen for neutral reasons—in other words, a student is not chosen to give the opening prayer, a student is chosen because they’re the valedictorian or they’re the class president or something like that—then that’s a neutral selection. What the student says is their own business.

“Students must not wear religious insignia, clothing, or jewelry to school.” If the school has a policy that bans any messages on T-shirts, then that would be consistent. That is not showing hostility toward religious speech any more than it is any other speech. However, if they say you can’t wear a rosary, no. That is a religious something that a student can have that’s expressing their faith. So that would be a case-by-case basis depending on the policy of the school and the history of the school. But, in general, when it has to do with religious expression, whether it’s on your T-shirt or a cross around your neck or a rosary, you have that freedom.

Sum up what would be your take-away for parents of children in the public schools. It frustrates me that parents send their kids to public schools and then don’t engage with what their kids are learning in those classrooms. I highly recommend that every parent should be talking with their kids about what they’re learning, looking through their textbooks, reading the books they’re reading, talking to them about the values they’re learning, and using that predict and pre-teach strategy. We’ve done it with our own. We have three daughters. All of them have gone through the public schools, and we’ve done it successfully with them. It helps them graduate with much more discernment and thinking about their faith and thinking how it plays out in their classroom and in the world every day. That’s what I wish parents would be doing.

Listen to Mary Reichard’s conversation with Eric Buehrer on The World and Everything in It.

Mary Reichard

Mary is co-host, legal affairs correspondent, and dialogue editor for WORLD Radio. She is also co-host of the Legal Docket podcast. Mary is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and St. Louis University School of Law. She resides with her husband near Springfield, Mo.

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