We’re currently in the midst of another full-throated attack on public schools by conservatives who treat them as godless hotbeds of liberal insanity. If you believe their lies—and you shouldn’t—public schools are where young furries need litter boxes in the classroom, where teachers encourage kids to be LGBTQ, where sex education promotes risky behavior, where “Critical Race Theory” and “Common Core math” and unpatriotic history are regularly preached, and where pandemic-related mask mandates are suppressing student development. Conservative Christians have also attempted to censor books in school districts under the guise of protecting kids.
Underlying all of that is this belief that public schools are somehow anti-Christian, which also explains why football coaches can’t pray at midfield after games and why teachers can’t push Creationism on kids.
All of these things are lies or exaggerations.
The rumors are routinely debunked. Conservatives mistake the requirement of government neutrality with the loss of their own privilege. But trying to talk sense into them is futile when their false beliefs are just amplified in right-wing media.
That’s why we should give credit where it’s due: Christianity Today recently published an essay by Ericka Andersen (who’s hardly a liberal) saying in no uncertain terms that “Public schools aren’t godless.” Andersen spoke with a number of Christian parents whose kids are in public schools as well as Christian teachers who work in them, all of whom push back against the myth that public schools are hostile to their faith.
“I have not experienced what I think my church and maybe some of the church members are angry and upset about,” said Brittany Braun, a third-grade teacher who has taught in public schools for 14 years. “I don’t feel like I have been asked to quiet my faith or push an agenda that I don’t believe in.”
“In short,” wrote Marilyn Anderson Rhames, “Disenchantment with public education appears to have much more to do with political ideology than religion.”
Some Christian families, like the Groens in Minnesota, have recently rethought their assumptions about public school. After she and her husband both attended private Christian schools, Jenny Groen intended to do the same with her six kids.
But some of their children were unable to attend private school due to health needs, so Groen homeschooled for a year during the pandemic. The experience made her realize “how isolated we had been living” inside a “very small, insulated Christian bubble.”
“We felt that we were failing to follow what Scripture says when it calls us to ‘live in the world, but not of the world,’” she told CT. “After a year of homeschooling, we decided to send all six of our kids to the local public school, and I am so happy to be able to truly say that they are all thriving.”
Of course they’re thriving.
Of course Christian teachers aren’t being asked to promote atheism or deny their faith.
Of course there’s no anti-religious bias.
It’s what liberals have been saying for years. Rumors of Christian persecution in the schools is something that exists only in the minds of religious zealots. Students can pray (without being disruptive), and read the Bible (on their own time), and form Christian clubs (that meet before or after school), and no one’s ever tried to stop them. Teachers can sponsor those clubs and pray privately whenever they want to.
The problem with religion in public schools is almost always a case of Christian overreach, not an inability to do what everyone else can do.
So why does this myth persist?
It’s all part of a larger conservative agenda, whether it’s stated or not, to destroy public schools by defunding and demonizing them. Republicans have passed laws and gone to court to use public dollars to pay for private religious schools, depriving public schools of necessary funding. They’ve acted like COVID shutdowns were unnecessary, completely ignoring the health and safety of educators. They’ve waged a war against public school teachers, making the profession less appealing to new graduates.
There’s nothing wrong with homeschooling if it’s done well. There’s nothing wrong with private schools either. But they are not solutions for all families. More importantly, the lack of regulation, and the conservative Christian push to get rid of any and all oversight, means a lot of kids will slip through the cracks with no recourse. None of that means public schools don’t have problems, though many of them are systemic. But the solution has never involved less funding and more micromanaging.
If you think promoting religious neutrality is unfair, and that the teaching of science and health and history is somehow anti-Christian, the problem isn’t the schools.
The problem is you.